Tag Archives: Institutional Memory

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.