Business memory

by Admin
Updated: June 20, 2018

A business memory is a way for businesses to find and use information from past experience

As an individual, you can remember things that did & didn’t work in the past because you have a memory and you can access it.

It can be a tremendous waste of time & money for businesses to repeat the mistakes of the past and a lack of business memory means that not only can this happen, but it isn’t even possible to know how much.

Systems for propagating relevant experience and properly documenting failures are critical for protecting against this.

Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Imagine building a business, learning all the ways that don’t work and then discovering your staff are attempting them all over again, in complete ignorance of previous attempts, every few years!

To paraphrase George Santayana, “Businesses which do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Historically, companies were protected against this by experienced long-serving staff. Unfortunately, information that exists only in this form is easily lost and when staff turnover is high it can disappear quite quickly.

Normal business memory

One structure that does exist is financial record keeping. It is mandated by law but most businesses will retain details over & above the minimums required because the importance of doing this is proven in the short term (cashflow, investor relationships etc.). Long established practices ensure standard easily accessed formats. Even so, it is rare to find explanations attached to the accounts, especially those related to research & development.

Businesses actively engaged in research & development will normally keep detailed records. However, information that isn’t part of a current conversation can be difficult to locate, especially when it’s part of a failed project.

Discarded memory

So much importance is currently attached to success that failures are often deliberately forgotten. This is also true for individuals.

Social memory

In a highly connected society it is at least possible to reach out via the Internet and find resources, including experienced individuals, almost anywhere in the world.

An often overlooked social resource is physical museums and the people associated with them, a lesser know type of which is devoted to products/ideas that have failed.

The main disadvantage of the social approach is that key details are likely to be missing, lost or not as directly relevant as those that could have been collected from direct experience & research available at the time.

Organizing info is a chore

When collating information has no obvious payback it’s a real chore. Simply recording it, e.g. in a CRM, can be challenging enough.

Original electronic communications which are automatically recorded and should be searchable, e.g. e-mail, usually do not meet the need. Have you ever tried searching through hundreds of conversations for the real answer to why a project failed to deliver?

AI (artificial intelligence) may soon provide a good general solution, but for now I find a custom solution for each business is necessary. Sometimes it is part of a good CRM system, often it’s simply requiring managers to write weekly & monthly reports.

More info

Good intros including key aspects of corporate memory can be found at wired.com and marginalia.online.

A good article, “How to start a library of dead ideas” can be found at thinkpurpose.com and a discussion, “Do we need a public services museum of failed products... as a substitute for lost corporate memory” is at whatsthepont.com.

The original article referring The Museum of Failed Products in Ann Arbor, MI is available at theguardian.com and info about The Museum of Failure (founded in Sweden, now also in LA) can be found at failuremuseum.com.

“Could AI be the answer to unlocking corporate knowledge?” is presented at starmind.com and “Organizing Corporate Memories” (1996, but still valid) lists seven requirements that a corporate memory should satisfy (3.5 Summary):

  1. It should be easy for individual workers to access the knowledge in the corporate memory, to facilitate individual learning by combination.
  2. It should be easy for workers to decide which of the co-workers could have the knowledge needed for a particular activity.
  3. It should be easy for workers to decide which of the co-workers would be interested in a lesson learned.
  4. It should be easy (and rewarding) for a worker to submit a lesson learned to the corporate memory.
  5. There should be well-defined criteria for deciding if something is a lesson learned, how it should be formulated and where it should be stored.
  6. There should be mechanisms for keeping the corporate memory consistent.
  7. The corporate memory should have a facility to distribute a newly asserted piece of knowledge to the workers that need that knowledge.

Internal links

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