3.2 Organisational memory systems
Without a memory, humans are paralysed in the present moment, unable to reflect on lessons learned or to anticipate the future. You will notice that the heading given to the framework in Figure 3 is corporate memory. The whole dynamic system of people and technologies is conceived as constituting an organisation-wide resource that will enable it to become a more intelligent, learning organism, to pursue the anthropomorphic metaphor. The organisational memory challenge goes beyond traditional information systems design with this much richer conception of collective knowledge processes in the organisation. How can they be integrated, organised and indexed to create a truly useful memory?
The concept of organisational memory proposed by Walsh and Ungson (1991) noted six forms of collective memory. One of these identified the memories (and implicitly the expertise) of individual staff members. Terms such as ‘team memory’, ‘project memory’, ‘community memory’, ‘corporate memory’ and ‘organisational memory’ are now used widely to refer to this human resource plus technological extensions in the form of databases and knowledge bases. While many technologists use ‘organisational memory’ to mean a digital archive, in the light of earlier discussions we would contend that it is meaningless to discuss ‘knowledge archives’ or ‘memory’ in the absence of interpreters. In fact, the term is so loose and widely used that its power lies as much in its evocative imagery as anything else, and it is not hard to construe many, if not all, of the technologies described in this course as playing a role in organisational memory. When it comes to actually designing a system for this, basic questions recur that the designers of any technology intended to support work need to ask: who are the users, what are their tasks, and what are the important cognitive and social processes that enable them to accomplish their work; how can these be supported, and how will they be changed through the introduction of new technologies?
Often, there is no useful concept of a single ‘organisation’ when it comes to designing memory systems, but rather a collection of interrelated subgroups and communities doing widely differing work. For some strategic planning tasks it may be useful to conceptualise idealised information flows around the organisation as a whole, but this needs to be weighed against the rather ‘messier’ and more complex work processes which such models hide. It may be both more useful and more practical to start with smaller units of analysis than the organisation, reflecting natural clusters of expertise and organisational function such as group or project memory. Once these have been shown to work within a local context, an attempt can be made to link and share information across them. This idea relates to the communities of practice perspective, which prioritises understanding local work contexts before attempting more general characterisations.