Addressing the Loss of Institutional Memory

There was an interesting article in the news today that highlights the struggle organizations face when they try to preserve knowledge, codify decisions, or record experiences in a way that can be passed on from one generation of staff to the next.

The backstory is that United Airlines recently re-assigned the numbers Flight 93 and Flight 175 to existing Continental Airlines flights, triggering protests from pilots and flight attendents who felt the reuse of these numbers was disrespectful to the people who lost their lives in the 9/11 hijackings. The two companies are in the process of merging and a spokesperson for the airline claimed that the revival of these particular numbers was “an unfortunate and inadvertent mistake” caused by a computer glitch.

I certainly believe that the error was unintentional but I think it’s disingenuous to blame this on a simple computer glitch. This is clearly a business process error stemming from the consolidation of two different systems.

My guess is that somewhere in the bowels of the program that handles the random assignment of flight numbers, there is (or was) a hard coded sequence that screens out codes like 93 and 175 (and, for superstitious reasons, 13 and 666). With the merger of United and Continental, this process was either erased or bypassed, allowing the error to manifest itself in an improper assignment.

Nobody caught the problem at this point because the activity of assigning flight numbers became disassociated from the cultural weight given certain numbers. In other words, the company’s business processes and business rules were no longer capable of conveying the rationale behind a particular business decision.

This kind of knowledge hiccup happens all of the time (although probably with less media impact). Most companies are just not very good at setting up a system that reliably captures institutional memory in a way that guarantees continuity. Instead, they rely on their employees to learn and store important aspects of their business. This is called experience or, alternatively, job security.

The problem with this approach is that demographic trends are working against you. With the inevitable retirement of older workers and the more nomadic nature of the younger workforce, businesses are going to need to start paying more attention to the transmission of knowledge and resources from one person to another. Don’t wait for a knowledge management mistake to show up in the media before you act.

Congratulations on the new website! I have come across a few resources on knowledge management and institutional memory but good stories are harder to find. I will keep an eye out and post anything that looks appropriate.

Meanwhile, I have a few links in my notes that might be helpful:

Many of these focus on business but might be applicable to other areas of preserving information.

The company for which I work just turned 100 last year. We build primarily steam turbines and have machines that were constructed in the 30’s still in operation around the world. Institutional memory is a huge problem for us. We have vaults and vaults of slowly mouldering technical drawings going back to the early 1900’s which still need to be kept, just in case. (I’ve found several on vellum and one signed by Nikola Tesla himself)

Long stretches of time between building instances of a certain type of unit mean that everyone who participated last time might be retired now. We’ve made efforts to create searchable databases of such information, but it’s an effort to which management never seems to be willing to throw the needed manpower to not only scan old documents, but to type them into a searchable format.

The company for which my wife works is in a similar situation, with a history going back even longer. One solution of theirs is to keep her 89yo grandfather on the payroll. He has worked there since 1944 in sales, engineering, purchasing, etc. His function now is more or less to review ideas and say something to the effect of “Well, we tried that back in ’72 and it didn’t work then. Here’s why.”

It makes me wonder if there isn’t a business opportunity here. Companies outsource other business functions. Why not the maintenance and upkeep of institutional memory? I’m sure you could put some legal safeguards around any proprietary information. These archive companies could even hire some of the older workers themselves to help organize key information. Interesting.


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