Recently we found ourselves looking at a seldom used feature in our product and discussing if we should change the way that it worked. It was a feature of our product that had existed for at least fifteen years. Some of us felt it was not working correctly and others thought it was working just fine. In order to consider if we should change things, and how, we had to remind ourselves why we built the feature in the first place. What were the assumptions we made those many years ago? What did we consider and what did we rule out back then?
Worse yet, had it always worked this way or had something recently changed?
Some of us could swear it worked differently in the past and it was now not working as it should have. Surely, we thought, somewhere along the way the feature must have unnoticeably changed somehow. Had we intentionally changed the feature many years ago and forgotten doing so? Was it “broken” (not working as designed) in a recent release of our product or had it been broken in a release many years ago and nobody had noticed? Or was it not broken at all and was merely working exactly as it always had and should? Had some of us merely remembered something incorrectly?
As we evaluated some of the questions, we relied on the memory of people who had been in our company for a long time. As we found out, that can be a very tricky thing to rely on. People remember things differently.
In our case, we were able to track back through the releases of our software as far back as ten years ago. We saw that the feature was working in those old releases just as it was working in our most recent release. We could not trace back further and simply concluded it had always worked this way and was, in fact, not broken. What some had said was a defect has, in the end, turned into a future opportunity in our product roadmap. We did not have to correct something. Instead, we could extend an existing capability and make it better (if we wanted to).
Also, in our case, we relied on people because the systems and methods that contained the original feature definition and rationale were no longer accessible (more on that later).
This is what is referred to as “corporate memory,” sometimes called “organizational memory.” But how, exactly, does an organization remember something?
Why is corporate memory important?
Wikipedia defines corporate (organizational) memory as “the accumulated body of data, information, and knowledge created in the course of an individual organization's existence.” It is a target of knowledge management solutions, and has been so for many years.
Personally, I like the definition from the Cambridge Dictionary better: “the combined knowledge and experience of a company's employees.”
Example: corporate memory in forensics
Sometimes the corporate memory is a critical asset. Consider the case of forensics. The records that are created, either in laboratories or investigative reports, can have importance many years beyond their original planned life. We see criminal cold cases being resolved many years after the crimes were committed. I recently read a New York Times opinion piece written by Emily Bazelon that delved into the case of a man who was executed in 2006 and explored the potential that DNA might prove that he was innocent. Ethical issues aside, without the preserved records of the events of 1985 such potential could not be considered. Talk about the importance of records!
Example: corporate memory in business
Let's take a business example, one that is not as uncommon as one might think. A major corporation that shall remain nameless had a significant reduction in staff during the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. The reduction was not just a response to the financial affairs of the corporation during the downturn but was also a change in strategy that was identified and subsequently implemented as a new business model for the corporation.
Fast forward about eight years. An innovation and technology supplier was working with the company in a new area of research. The supplier was a key long-term technology partner that had worked with the company for several decades. The supplier knew more about the innovation process that needed to be followed, and why, than the company itself did. The people in the company who knew why those particular processes, and certain documents within it, were important were no longer employed by the company and the current staff had no idea of the importance of creating such documentation. Fortunately, the partner was able to fill that particular void.
Sources of corporate memory
Here are some sources of corporate memory:
People. This is the number one source of corporate memory and, in many companies, the most volatile. Employees make decisions, often accompanied with significant discussion and even debate. This memory is lost in cases where turnover is high or where substantial time has passed and people struggle to remember the course of events (as in our case described at the beginning of this article). Everyone knows this source of corporate memory is fraught with risk, so the next examples of sources of corporate memory are implemented as a substitute.
Documents. This is the second most common source of corporate memory. We write things down. Human beings have done that for a long time. This memory is good if it can be cataloged and retrieved. Paper records have been good for long-term storage. And there have been some very good cataloging systems developed to index the documents. The risk is that they can be destroyed too easily, either by intention or accident. And their utility for reuse is lacking because they are not searchable.  Electronic documents came to the forefront in the 1970s with the decreasing costs of computers and a new capability called ‘word processing,' and shortly after it came spreadsheets. Electronic documents have been very valuable for capturing corporate memory, especially once they were taken off personal hard drives and stored more centrally.
Applications and databases. The ability to capture and store corporate memory electronically is directly linked to the rise of information technology. Companies store documents in file systems on servers, in databases, and in applications themselves (like our innovation management software, Accolade) in order to preserve their corporate memory.
Cloud capture. Others are now capturing corporate memory on our behalf. Internet search indexes have captured our corporate memory for a quite some time. Globally we see projects such as the internet archive that are taking on the enormous task of capturing and storing worldwide memory, both corporate and public. If you have never tried to look up an old and long-gone website for your company or any other company, have some fun and take a look at something called Wayback Machine.
In part two of this series, we will talk about corporate memory loss and then expand into innovation-related corporate memory. We'll look at how modern processes and practices are affecting corporate memory and the impact of it.
How are you handling your corporate memory? How do you determine what is important to remember and how do you preserve it? Feel free to write a comment below or connect with me on LinkedIn.
 "Gee I know it's in that room of documents somewhere, but where?" Corporate memory can be of little use if it cannot be accessed. Maybe we should call paper documents Corporate Archive and not Corporate Memory.