Losing Company Memory: New Digital Risks, How to Face Them and an Unlikely Hero

The company memory is the most important asset of your company. It is the core of the knowledge your organization has collected throughout the years: decisions, processes, operations, your value promise, your client's information, your databases, and your insights. This is not a new concept – it has been around in the knowledge management discipline for at least 25 years. With the increasingly close relationship between technology and business, there are new factors that have come into play in terms of preserving valuable information and data in digital services and channels.

In this article, we will be taking another look at the concepts presented by Kenneth A. Megill, a pioneer in knowledge management for enterprises and the author of "Company Memory: Records and Information Management in the Knowledge”, with some insights into the current context. Back in his 2nd edition of the book, published in 2005, Megill had a lot of clarity of where things were heading: The Internet was growing, the companies were adopting it, and paper was walking calmly to the exit door. As a visionary, a lot of his ideas of the risks and challenges of knowledge management in an enterprise context are still valid today – and we are adding some interesting twists.

Losing Corporate Memory

Companies and organizations are producing huge amounts of information each day. More than ever. The levels of what we have achieved in the past few years are challenging to estimate. With the arrival of Cloud computing and Cloud services, plus the boost of social media-like engagement, a company's information and data have stretched into new corners. Are Twitter accounts corporate information? For Tesla, surely they are. Are the analytics report of our e-commerce platform corporate information? With all of its tabs and reports, yes. Are all of these pieces of information and data collected in one single place? Not by chance. It is very likely that most companies have relevant information stored in different systems, in different formats, probably mixing relevant with irrelevant data. There's no such thing as a perfect, well-ordered, streamlined, simple database with the core memory of what a large organization does. But for our own good, we surely should try to achieve it.

Companies and organizations are now dependent on hundreds of different formats, and, of course, some of those may become obsolete with time. Back in the day, Megill was concerned about how long the CDs (remember those?) were going to last as a method of data storage. Nowadays, we can worry about streaming and Cloud services. With multiple integrated services that live in the Cloud, a lot of information is collected and managed for us. That is not a bad thing - it only means that we need to make sure we have redundant processes to keep our copies, our versions, or our backups in case those services change. Just like Netflix can remove your favorite movie next month, Cloud services can add or remove features, functionalities, or capacities in the blink of an eye. But this idea spans beyond the storage medium. Talking about software, an organization uses hundreds of different formats (some of them proprietary) to create and store knowledge. Think about database files, Photoshop files, Word and Excel files, video and audio files in different formats, Sketch projects, emails, etc. The way we store information and data is becoming more complex than ever and also highly dependent on particular brands; think about the reliance organizations have on PDF, which is a proprietary format of Adobe. What we should always keep in mind is that all formats will evolve, all formats are temporary, and our company memory should be available and easily accessed through your organization’s lifetime, meaning decades or more than a century. Seen in this light, the need to nurture our technology roadmap, include standard formats and common languages, and create universally browsable content (like web content for company policies) becomes crucial. As Megill clarifies, “The ‘solution’ to corporate memory management is not a software package, but developing ways to work that take advantage of the capabilities of the very technologies that make capturing corporate memory so difficult”.

Highly performative employees usually become informal repositories of information and are crucial for operations. But shifting jobs is more frequent than ever. Generation Z and centennial employees are known for their ambition and how rapidly they aspire to run through the ladder to the higher levels of the hierarchy. On top of this, frequent changes in leadership, caused by the ever-changing challenges of markets and industries, can also affect how valuable information is preserved (and even what the concept of "valuable" means to the company). While this is a cultural change that will affect how we structure organizations and the promise they make to employees, it raises the risk of how dependable organizations and companies can be with the "repository" nature that a particular performative good employee brings. This issue also has another layer: Megill makes the distinction between tangible (databases, reports, etc.) and intangible knowledge (culture, tricks-of-the-trade, hacks, etc.). If people are no longer spending enough time on a company to create and collect the intangible knowledge needed to grease up and smooth our operations, how will this affect our company's growth in the long term? Think about the gig economy, where big tech companies track data and KPIs but don't necessarily have access to the "intangible” information that their partners and collaborators generate every day. Implicit knowledge is where your organizational culture is rooted.

The culture of "knowledge cleaning" has had difficulties in becoming mainstream. Defining information structure and metadata, designing workflows for creating or updating documents, and setting up governance processes in an organization are part of the job of handling knowledge and information. However, discarding information is a more delicate process that is not easily adopted. In this day and age, when Cloud services and storage drives offer a huge amount of space that is increasing by the minute, discarding information feels against the norm or even unnecessary. Organizations are usually on the other side of the spectrum when it comes to "Marie Kondo"-like discarding practices. For Megill, deleting irrelevant information is crucial when it comes to knowledge management: "A major cause of the loss of corporate memory is keeping too many documents and too many versions of documents, which makes it difficult to determine the meaning and significance of a particular record”. Company memory means having one source of truth for your organization, allowing employees to be aligned, up to date, and walking in the same direction as their leaders and colleagues.

Opportunity cost for the reuse of information has increased significantly. Unlike 25 years ago, large organizations and companies are more accustomed to sharing information between departments and learning from each other: Research & Development feed Manufacturing, Marketing feeds R&D, Customer Service feeds Marketing, and so on. Breaking silos and crossing relevant information gives depth to decision-making and avoids making the same mistakes over and over. In other words, if a leader has great insight into how to solve an issue, but this knowledge isn't shared with the rest of the team, does it make any difference to have it? Megill stated in his book: "The more information can be reused, the greater its value becomes, for information gains value in context with other information”. Being able to listen and understand insights, learnings, and findings from all departments of a company has tremendous value, as it allows the organization to make better decisions, seize new opportunities, have breakthroughs, and scale to new heights. And it's worth mentioning that today thriving companies are those that receive, collect and create information from all sources, no matter how heterogeneous, with a clear advantage over those organizations that are short-sighted or are still in the dark.

Like we said in the beginning, Megill's thoughts on knowledge management are still eerily accurate if only ramped up by the complexity and acceleration of the digital time we live. There's a huge responsibility of leadership towards preserving the company's memory and its one source of truth not only to avoid a halt in operations or increase productivity but also to allow the company to scale and grow as much as it can.

What happens if you lose or damage your company's memory? You won't have the knowledge needed to operate or run your organization as you did before. Like choosing paths while being blindfolded or trying to win a race when you are stuck in the mud, losing your company memory is not being able to rely on every shortcut or advantage, you have built over time to make better decisions. At the same time, there can be a price to pay since your company cannot operate without that missing crucial piece of knowledge. Whether it be re-documenting, re-learning, or re-creating, it can cost you time, effort, and money.

There's plenty to be done before that happens. Here's a quick guide on how to start working on a solid foundation between your corporate memory and the digital channels.

Preserving company memory – first steps

1. Understand your company's pain points and explore them – What are the symptoms? Confusion, disorganization, redundancy, dependency on key stakeholders?

2. Promote proper documentation of both formal and informal knowledge - Not only internally, but with all collaboration with external parties too

3. Make internal efforts to understand how your information and data are structured

4. Set up processes for knowledge management and preserving company memory – Define someone with expertise or bring an external firm like Base22 that can help you

5. Consider format changes and version upgrades in your technology roadmap, as well as standardization processes and universal formats 

6. Design a quick test - If your core team is gone for 3 months, can the rest of the team find all information that's essential to survive a thorough lawsuit?

An unlikely hero - Digital workplaces

With the pandemic of Covid-19, many companies have jumped into digital workplaces as a solution for remote working. By using these solutions, they are not only bridging the connectivity gap between employees and business partners but also making information and knowledge available for everyone in the same process, from desktop to mobile, from one country to another.

In a sense, digital workplaces are a quick solution for knowledge management and company memory. They have “productized" digital environments with a focus on communication and performance: a collection of tools such as portals, communication suites, Cloud services, and social media-like channels of communication, including some integration processes and automation. With OOTB functionalities and customization, they enable you to share information and set an initial structure to achieve it.

That being said, there's still a long road ahead of us: making the solution fit our needs, understanding features, improving processes, exploring the corners of your organization where valuable information is stored, and bringing it back to the surface so every employee can leverage it. Having an "eagle eye view" of your company memory is a great place to start, but as anything that truly matters for you and your organization, it needs to be nurtured and to be allowed to flourish at every stage of the journey.

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