Talk:Institutional Memory and KM

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Noha Abed, 2009/10/20

Dear all,

Does anyone have an idea about successful case study for reorganizing organizational memory as I need it in orser to use it as an example for applying knowledge map to enhance the performance of the organization memory system?

Viktor Markowski, 2009/10/20

Hi Noha,

Could you expand a bit on what you understand to be "organizational memory" and "organizational memory system"?

Noha Abed, 2009/10/20

Dear Victor,

Okay so I am working as knowledge manager for a research center organization and as most researchers need to share and use knowledge I am interested in applying Knowledge map concepts and we already have an intranet system that we call the organizarional memory and I am working on enhancing this organizational intranet system, based on kmap concepts to make sure of the knowledge flow within the organization as well as the knowledge sharing so if you have any idea about successful case study that we can use as a model to make sure we are on the right track I will be grateful.

James J. Tarrant, 2009/10/20

Probably he means "institutional memory"; how an organization/institution organizes its essential operational information (MIS/IMS) as well as the even more valuable explicit and tacit knowledge, ways of doing things, institutional culture, etc. The formal MIS, which can take many different forms, is often mainly useful for operating procedures, regulations, HR, etc. whereas the more diffuse "how do we do the things we do and why" is the much harder to organize part of an institution's KM.

Noha Abed, 2009/10/20

yeh exactly it is a way to locate where is the knowledge withing the organizationor who possess it , who is responsible from it so I was asking about case study for using kmap to enhance institutional memory

Stephen Katz, 2009/10/20

One could write a book about this, particularly how not to do it.

Tony Pryor, 2009/10/20

Actually, this issue - how does one keep, maintain and then pass along knowledge is probably one of the most critical these days, as we all engage in this massive generational switch from the "baby boomers" to the various Gens - Gen X, etc., etc.

I may have mentioned this before, but the book that I found the most stimulating (and scary) on this is "Losing Knowledge", by David Long. It's five years old now, and doesn't cover much on the public sector, NGOs or essentially any of the types of entities inhabiting the development world, but I thought it was a wonderfully stimulating read when it came out. Essentially, his focus is on the power of tacit knowledge to organizations, and the extraordinary difficulties faced in saving and passing along such knowledge. This difficulty comes from a series of issues; here are some of them, in no particular order, being drawn from my humanoid random access memory (which seemingly is getting more and more random every year...):

Tacit knowledge is often less about facts and concrete procedures, and more about concepts, approaches and work-arounds, none of which can be readily transmitted as one can do in a handover report.

In many instances, people who know don't know how to share, or THINK they are sharing but leave out key ingredients (like a recipe for a cake which leaves out the eggs, or which says "season to taste", which implies a level of experiential learning which really can't be taught from a book)

The need to think about succession planning needs to include what the incoming person knows about the bundle of tacit skills and knowledge that the outgoing person knows; the less the first person knows, the longer the handover time, even to the point of putting in the incoming person into the position while the outgoing person is still around. (What the military often calls "right seat ride", although for those of you who drive on the "wrong " side of the road it would be left seat ride!)

I can say from my experience NOT ONCE in about 20 years in the public sector was there sufficient time to learn what the outgoing person knew, and often there was no overlap at all. And the same as an outgoing person; often bureaucracies tend to think that work doesn't entail a learning curve. And if there IS a learning curve, it's a factual one, with skills that can be taught in a class. But on the other hand we are always designing and implementing development programs, with the idea that NOTHING really is learned effectively until 2-3 years "on the job" (whatever that term means these days).

What needs to be learned is NOT just the facts, and not just the concepts, but the institutional, cultural and political environment within which that job operates - "Don't bother to fill out that form; just see Mary..." "While you can start alphabetically in doing a survey, frankly you will learn more going right to Zimbabwe first..." "We actually wrote a close version of that paper five years ago, but these were some of the unwritten pressures and concerns which drove its writing, and in listening to this new assignment I'm not sure it's the same because of..." "Your windshield is about to pop off? Ignore the owner's manual - just use gum".

(And on that last one, I can vouch for its effectiveness, although it did require 2 sticks of gum to ensure bonding...).

Another issue which I won't cover here but wanted to flag: the extent to which our pc/mac and web age has made it easier or harder to maintain and share such institutional knowledge. I would say that in theory these innovations have made things easier, but in reality such "advances" have also helped to atomize that knowledge.

Peter J. Bury, 2009/10/20

"who is responsible for 'organizational' memory" or who is responsible to FACILITATE the collaborative management (by all) in the organization? Makes a difference, also in the amount of managing ;-)

Tony Pryor, 2009/10/20

I'm not sure where I come out on this; from a web 2.0 world, skills and expertise are the responsibility of everyone, and building up that memory should be a collaborative effort. One good example is the US State Dept., which put in place a wiki called diplopedia. Diplomats are not known to be a chatty, collaborative crowd, and everyone thought that this was a good idea thrown into a swamp. But actually this is being heavily used, especially in country write-ups, where people are putting down notes drawn from their experience on both substance as well as the best Italian restaurant in the country, good places for hiking etc, etc. And if THEY can do it, I figure it is possible for any organization to do it.

But I am also concerned about not having some core entity which worries about the tacit knowledge that runs the institution. Such knowledge is indeed of tremendous corporate worth, be it an advertizing agency or an NGO, or a community group. And someone needs to track what's being gathered, and most important where there are gaps. In our FRAME KM site for instance, on NRM, after 6 years of operation there were tons of entries for Niger and Madagascar, and few if any documents on East Africa. Had nothing to do with corporate interest of the client, but rather the personal habits and interests of those individuals who accessed the site. Talkative? You end up with TONS of material on Antananarivo. Not so talkative? Zip on Lilongwe...

Purposeful facilitation (or strategic facilitation) might be a useful addition.

Jaap Pels, 2009/10/20

So we agree the memory is in people and sometimes they document it. I would advice source protection; make sure you can reach them for stories. I think it was mentioned in another thread we are facing a generation take-over in development. And we better get in sync with how the next generation communicates so we have to blib, wave, hyve, Facebook, digit, reedit and delicious next to wordpress and drupal and ping and tweet, sms, msms, call, phone, tape; in other words network! And who knows will the ex-employees stay in touch through the network.

It's funny, but SOME of the older generation (ie my peers) have gotten into the 2.0 world NOT from work but via ordering clothes and other gifts online, following their friends from high school, checking out local sports teams not covered otherwise on the tv, etc., etc. While the digital native/digital immigrant schism does exist, it is interesting that even the Neanderthals amongst us have evolved at least a bit over the last few years due to the ubiquitousness of technology.

Tony Pryor, 2009/10/20

A quick story, though, which was pretty telling:

Last year my 11 yr old's school had an event for parents, trying to allay some of their fears over their children's access to the internet, which the teacher did, mostly. But then she called up about 12 kids who had just gotten into college, and had been in her IT class in high school (the teacher of course was younger than my middle daughter, at 20 yrs, but never mind). She turned to the parents and said: "ok, how many of you now feel comfortable using email"? Everyone raised a hand, some looking pretty pleased with themselves for crossing over this key technological chasm. She then wheeled around to her former students and asked the same question. NOT ONE person said yes. Not one! All are using twitter, IM, facebook, etc., etc.

At which point the discussion swerved onto an unexpected and surprising path - focusing on the danger from these technologies to grammar and writing skills. Frankly it was an odd experience listening to the new college students wondering aloud why such topics as grammar and spelling had to be covered in school any more, why ANYONE would write full sentences, and why it was an interesting idea to do away with handwriting in elementary school. So much for worrying about pornography and violence; the parents were immediately overwhelmed with angst and dread over.....who knew what? A heck of a meeting...

Nancy White, 2009/10/20

Purposeful facilitation (or strategic facilitation) might be a useful addition.

I'm nodding here, but also wondering, how much capture and reuse of organizational memory is really a) practical and b) useful as contexts shift. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but how much is enough? How do we know it is useful?

Jaap Pels, 2009/10/20

... and I wonder what is the baby? I think the name 'wave' is very deliberate! It is about the wave not about drowning babys :-) You gotto surf to flow .... But seriously, I think capturing in retrospect on time frames longer then a year ago will not work. I even fee that capturing is about now or never; it must be done in the process, quick, short and snappy.

A story. I sail again and talked to a mate also having 17 years and asked him about their interest in sailing. The answer was none and the reason: it takes to long! Yes indeed like writing an e-mail with whole sentences ... it is to much work :-)

Peter J. Bury, 2009/10/21

Indeed most of my (private) social networking consists in palavering with my friends kids :-)

Tony Pryor, 2009/10/21

Totally, completely useful, I would say (at least as a starting point).

Let's use a stark example. AID is doubling its Foreign Service staff(net) in three years. A really exciting opportunity to jump right to what Jaap is suggesting - a world of people who naturally gravitate to twitter-like tools, to communities of practice, etc. This means that last year only 5-10% of the staff had less than 3-4 years on the job, but in three years almost 50% (maybe 60% with attrition) will be "newbies". If in fact it takes 2-3 years to really learn a new job, and do it competently, AND that the most traditional way to transfer knowledge is through voluntary mentoring, how the heck is AID supposed to get there with such a traumatic transition? You CAN say: GREAT! Let a thousand flowers bloom! Let's step aside and let new ideas flourish. And it's true that the new generation is indeed much more used to collaboration and IT-base interchange. But I am also shocked by their degree of naiveté and greenness about development, and certainty about things in this world which I think should be addressed with great humility. They are still after all human, and humans learn in part from the experience of mentors. No mentors, then what...? Learn just from each other? Like those grad school seminars where we all learn what each other doesn't know...

Of course new knowledge is always being created, and the lessons from the past don't really necessarily "convey" to the future. But let's not assume that the past is useless either. A lot has changed, but a lot is the same. Some things which were successful 10-15 years ago are just as vibrant now; other approaches which were abject failures a decade ago are still disasters-in-the-making now. I find myself to be more of a "futurist" than a lot of my colleagues involved with development but I am certainly not as wistful about the future being unlike the past as this list can be sometimes.

And finally, Long's main point about lost knowledge - not everything in terms of infrastructure from the past is thrown away (be it physical or intellectual) is quite relevant.

James J. Tarrant, 2009/10/21

Sometimes institutional memory can be as simple as ensuring that key technical documents (and some operational ones) are archived electronically and accessible through a user-friendly and intuitive search tool. Nowadays, of course, most documents connected to development activities are or can be quickly turned into electronic equivalents. But, as many know, this was not the case even 20 years ago. Around that time or even earlier, many USAID missions started purging themselves of their then pretty extensive libraries. Often just threw the stuff out. As a PhD student, I benefited from rummaging through all these documents, maps, etc. but much really useful historical information was probably lost in a lot of countries. Some of it later ended up being PDF-ed and archived on its publicly accessible database (USAID's DEC - its development clearinghouse). So??

Well as a case example, years later, now, I manage a project assisting the Bedouins of northern and central Sinai in community development and sustainable livelihoods. This is an isolated and very poor population and the Egyptian Govt. severely restricts access by both foreigners and even other Egyptian professionals not from there to that population. As a result, conducting essential baseline assessments and surveys has been very difficult because of the security restrictions. Well, it turns out that 25+ years ago, USAID commissioned a large number of in-depth studies on many natural resource, sociological and institutional aspects of the Sinai peninsula after the Israeli withdrawal to help the Egyptians to create a development strategy. Most (alas not all) of those studies were PDF-ed years later and put on the DEC. USAID stopped working in the Sinai more than 20 years ago until now. So, a lot of highly useful secondary information and knowledge now largely exists only there (or in Arabic in scattered locations not on the web). These documents have helped us greatly as a kind of scoping exercise to identify what is relevant and not relevant so that we could use our limited access more efficiently. Of course, there is no substitute to interacting with the local population but we need to use this limited interaction efficently.

Without the DEC studies, developing realistic work plans would have been much more difficult. Of course, the search tool on DEC is pretty limited but that's fixable. The point is that the information is there and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

Brian Foster, 2009/10/21

Yes Nancy! I remember doing some work in UNDP on the then fashionable "learning organization" stuff and one staffer remarked "this place would do better as a forgetting organization."

Ian Thorpe, 2009/10/26

I'd also agree its totally useful. We have many lost opportunities for programmes in one country to be informed by similar experiences in another - due to weaknesses in capturing organizational memory. We also have a significant turnover of staff between locations as well as in and out of the organization which also exacerbates the problem. And although practice is evolving over time - we are still struggling to implement and scale-up successful approaches that were identified (if not fully documented) from some years ago.

In addition to efforts on better capturing and organizing explicit knowledge and to capture tacit knowledge through various lessons learned exercises, we were recently discussing introducing an "End of Assignment" reporting system for when staff move post/location (which is quite frequent in our organization). We looked at several models from self- completion on a simple form to more elaborate facilitated interviews and writing retreats and workshops to capture key learnings from staff about to move.

We are still in the middle of this exercise and plan to pilot different approaches to see what might work best in our organization - but one issue became apparent. From a practical standpoint there is a trade-off between what you invest into capturing the key learnings (in how much staff time and money is needed for the "capture" process) and how in depth the material captured is. But at the same time - given that tacit knowledge is always imperfectly captured and that learning from one situation might not be fully transferable (as well as sufficiently detailed) to transfer across time and location - then whatever systems are put in place for this shouldn't be too heavy of costly since in the end the return on investment probably won't be worth it.

Some other preliminary conclusions are that: i) Experience from some projects (or specific situations such as emergencies) are more strategic to capture than others ii) Similarly some people's tacit knowledge is more worth capturing than others - to keep this less contentious we are focussing on key positions by heirarchy or the critical roles they play - but I think in practice this has as much to do with the individuals as it does the position they held iii) those who have highly interesting experience don't necessarily have the right skills to write them up in a reusable form. But at the same time using interviewers or "ghost writers" also poses its own problems since unless this also risks that the experience gets interpreted through someone else's viewpoint- risking missing the key personal insights of the person who lived through it.

I'd also be interested to see good case studies of how others have tackled this problem!