Organizational memory – definition and meaning

Organizational memory refers to the collective ability to accumulate, store, and retrieve knowledge and data. Human memory is all about our ability to gain, store, and retrieve data. Organizational memory, however, extends beyond the individual. In other words, it refers to companies and other organizations.

An organization is any organized group of people who work together and have a common goal. They coordinate their activities.

Institutional memory or corporate memory mean the same as organizational memory. In this article, I use the three terms interchangeably. Institutional memory consists of information; specifically, information which is of value for re-use.

Organizational memory is mainly undocumented insights, experience, skills, and knowledge acquired over time.

Current employees pass on this information to new employees through meetings, training courses, and personal contacts. This type of memory also develops as a result of mentor-protégé relationships.

Organizational memory repositories

Organizational memory has two repositories: the archives of the organization, and individual people’s memories. With the term archives, we also include the organization’s electronic databases.

BusinessDictionary.com says that organizational memory typically vanishes through frequent layoffs, employee attrition, disasters, and excessive downsizing. Downsizing refers to trimming a company. In other words, reducing the size of a company’s operating costs.

James Walsh, from Dartmouth College, and Gerardo Ungson, from the University of Oregon, defined organizational memory as:

The information stored by the history of an organization that can influence the present decisions of the organizations.”

Organizational Memory - image with explanation
Organizations have memories, just as humans do, that help them not repeat the same mistakes. In humans, those memories are all in one place – the brain. However, organizational memories exist in several places.

Organizational memory – three stages

In the corporate memory process, there are three stages. The stages are essential to the organization’s learning process. The main stages are acquisition, retention, and retrieval.

Acquisition

Organizational memory contains the accumulated information on past decisions. However, companies, for example, do not store this data centrally. They store it across several retention facilities.

Each time employees make a decision, they also evaluate the consequences of those decisions. They then add some of the data regarding the consequences to the corporate memory.

Retention

There are five different repositories where organizations retain information about past experiences. They are Individuals, Culture, Transformations, Structures, and External Activities.

Culture refers to the frameworks and language that organizations have. We form shared interpretations with them.

Transformations refers to the formalized systems and procedures that the organization uses. In fact, these systems reflect the organization’s past experiences. They contain embedded knowledge.

Structures link people to each other, as well as to the environment.

External activities are the organization’s surroundings, where data can be stored. For example, competitors, ex-employees, and government bodies.

Retrieval

Regarding retrieval, Knowledge Management Tools writes:

“This can either be controlled or automatic. The latter refers to the intuitive and essentially effortless process of accessing organizational memory, usually as part of an established sequence of action.”

“Controlled refers to the deliberate attempt to access stored knowledge.”

Humans access and use past experiences to avoid making the same mistakes again. We also access and use past experiences to exploit valuable knowledge. Organizations do the same.

However, corporate memory, unlike human memory, does not exist in just one repository. It resides throughout the organization. In fact, it even resides outside it.

How people retrieve that knowledge or data varies. For example, if we have written it down, we can access it from electronic records.

Regarding cultural memory, however, Knowledge Management Tools writes:

” through the understanding and/or application of the norms and procedures of the working environment.”

Video – Organizational Memory

In this video, Roger Schank and Maria Bartiromo talk about the importance of corporate memory.