Institutional memory is still a weak area

The other day I posted a quip about the horribleness of Google Docs:


This is anecdotal, but I can’t think of a single person or organization that uses Google Docs and is able to share knowledge effectively because of it. Quite the contrary, Google Docs stands in the way of sharing, while encouraging the same hoarding behavior in “collaborators”.

Consider why people create documents. It is hardly ever for their own personal use. Documents are created to transmit knowledge, to exchange information between people. And yet the first tool many folks reach for when documenting their info is a word processor.

It is known there is no love lost between me and word processors. While I am certainly old enough to have used an electric typewriter, I became a web publisher first and foremost, so my priorities were less about processing words and more about syndicating and feedback. Also known as blogs, wikis and forums.

I simply skipped over the era and necessity of “memos” or printing docs to hand to another person.

But that was a big deal for a lot longer than the web had been around (thought admittedly it fades “faster” each year). And yet we still use that kind of thinking in creating documents, especially in work that involves high-info but low-tech knowledge.

The end result is that I ask if a person can share a piece of info with me and they either poke around their Google Docs, or just share an entire folder with me and wish me luck.

You already know this, of course, and that isn’t where I want to focus. Instead, let’s talk about institutional memory. The current wiki article has a great description that lends to the point I will make:

Institutional memory is a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group.

And that is the crux of what I am saying, “it requires the ongoing transmission”.

If we look at how folks actually store their documents, they dump them into silos that fit their own cognitive model of collection and sorting, and that is fine. But it means that at worst their silos are lost or lack updates with the ongoing transmission of knowledge, and at best another human has to figure out how someone else’s cognitive model fits into the groups’; think about someone leaving a company and handing over a laptop on their way out the door.

Never mind! Don’t think about that. No need to keep you up at night as well…

There is a wide spectrum for scenarios where information is lost in someone’s personal storage space. Advocacy-based non-profits are particularly vulnerable, given the personality centric structures they tend to invite, with subsequent burnout. Any group that has a dedicated IT sub-group will feel these pains, because that means there are more than three people, and networking gets weird after that.

A few quick prescriptions off the top of my head:

  • Be open. The fact of the matter is that even most “financial” info is incredibly mundane and useless outside of the internal context where it’s used. But each time someone “protects” a piece of info, the entire org suffers. Is it worth it?
  • Documentation is more cultural than technical. You don’t even need to do special training (though it wouldn’t hurt!); just coming into a space where people share information in the open is transformative.
  • Assume every document is a living document. It changes your priorities and requirements. If your knowledge becomes better, more informed, clearer over time, why would you lock it behind permissions and storage that doesn’t scale along a timeline?

In a future post I will look at specific tools that replace the file-based storage idea, as well as talk about asset management, which has a lot of the same issues, but different end results. In the meantime, tell me how you share knowledge with others, and what you’d like to see change.