Memory is a powerful factor in shaping both individual and collective perceptions of pretty much everything we do, but in our field we often take its value for granted.
Challenging certainty… again
Without the power of memory, the process of learning could not take place – and neither could most forms of meaningful communication. In a sense, the whole market for knowledge services is built on this extraordinary physio-psychological foundation.
Our reliance on memory for countless activities, from making everyday judgments on brand recognition, through to providing evidence in a legal setting, is such a key element of the human O/S that we rarely stop to consider its workings – especially its frailties.
Perhaps this is a very human tendency: although we have no problem questioning other people’s memory, we rarely question our own, as doing so would call into question our understanding of who we are and how the world around us works (which is partly why I do not believe that we can continue to exist in any meaningful way once our memories have been downloaded to a powerful computer, as Prof. Naftali Tishbi has theorised). [link in Hebrew]
Closer to home, the realisation that memory is unreliable (especially as we get older, become ill, or experience trauma and stress) raises some very real questions about how much faith we should place in primary research, that platinum standard of so many client engagements. Just as witness statements can crumble under legal scrutiny, so could the value of what our clients’ (and their customers’) memory tells them needs to be fixed, if only we challenged it more often.
We can all be wrong
It gets worse. Memory is not just shaky at the individual level, but also in the collective sense. For example, historical collective memory, whether merely embellished or almost entirely made up, has for centuries been a source of slightly odd national pride derived from events we have no direct experience of. In the worst cases, some vague, manipulated notion of a mythical golden age is used to provide a thin cover for unspeakable and dangerous acts.
In different settings, whole generations can suffer from collective amnesia, as this challenging piece by Richard Fisher suggests, with reference to environmental degradation. Whatever the truth, I fear that our children will not forget that it was our generation that accelerated climate change to catastrophic levels, while pursuing the type of growth that KPMG data scientist Gaya Herrington has definitively shown to be nothing more than an arrogant chimera.
What about organisations?
Switching to the organisational context, collective memory is also central to our understanding of social behaviours and their codification into organisational structures, processes and procedures. Social norms, which we share in specific cultural contexts, are based on a collective agreement of how ‘things are done’, which in turn relies on experience, stored as memory, to help their definition and acceptance (this can also be a real hindrance to change).
The term ‘organisational memory’ is now commonly used to describe these processes (although the term is often conflated with ‘knowledge management’, which rather narrows its scope and meaning). In its wider sense, organisational memory has significant implications for many aspects of management, but it also helps us to to better understand what moves companies to devise often well-intentioned responses to various challenges, then become distracted and collectively forget to follow up on their implementation, or monitor its effectiveness.
A good example of this are corporate social responsibility policies, which are often high on the agenda and released to great fanfare, but fail to take hold. Prof. Sébastien Mena is doing some powerful work on this and if, like me, you find the growing field of Organisational Memory Studies fascinating, then this excellent primer on its literature (from Mena and his colleagues: Hamid Foroughi, Diego Coraiola, Jukka Rintamäki and William M. Foster) is a great starting point.
How can leaders and managers enable more productive and engaged online-first working in the post-lockdown world? Lee’s very recent Business Information Review article digs into this questions and makes some smart recommendations on what leaders can do to move away from ineffective micromanagement and build the digital fabric of their organisations.
We are taking a short summer break, so the next Post*Shift Linklog will be shared in the week beginning 23rd August. See you then!