Institutional memory, which I wrote about recently, is a mixture of explicit and implicit knowledge sharing. It can be as explicit as Harvard Business School’s Institutional Memory site, or as implicit as the feeling one gets from a well-known local legend. A lot depends on what the organization wants to preserve. Is it how-to knowledge, like a trade secret formula, or is it certain practices and norms that define the culture? Or is it both? Each institution has to define this for itself.
Implicit knowledge is difficult to share and is usually complex. We know that this type of knowledge cannot easily be codified. However, it’s often what gives institutions sustainability and even competitive advantage. Finding ways to collect and share both types of knowledge is important for institutional memory. Stories can be an effective medium for these exchanges. The Ritz-Carlton provides an excellent example with Stories that Stay with You. Stories do not have to be exceptional to be effective, and simple anecdotes may be better on a large scale, rather than sweeping epics, or one can wind up in the uncanny valley of business storytelling.
Institutional memory is a close cousin of knowledge management. Both can be strengthened with a firm foundation of personal knowledge management (Seek-Sense-Share). While seeking and sense-making are mostly individual activities and people should be allowed to use what’s best for them, the organization can overtly support knowledge sharing. One suggestion is to create more opportunities for “people to have coffee together”. Though it’s not the coffee that’s important, the act of gathering, combined with an environment that encourages capturing and sharing knowledge artifacts, serves to build institutional memory.