Institutional decision memories can describe how and why we, as an organization, chose one course of action over another. As Brian Gongol notes:
If a capital project has an expected service life of 20 to 30 years, it’s entirely possible that people working in an institution in their 20s will be middle or upper-level managers in the same institution by the time the project has to be replaced or upgraded. Unless someone documents the process by which the original decision was made, including notes on the alternatives not taken, the 50-year-old manager who’s been with the institution all along will usually be guided more by 25 years of habits and built-in bias than by a fresh look at the available alternatives. And the situation is likely to be even worse if the 50-year-old manager making the decisions came into the institution recently and doesn’t even have a memory for when the original project was completed in the first place.
Over time, these memories can be codified and institutionalized. This is Big Knowledge Management, leveraging the power of enterprise software platforms to store decision, process, and event memories. Process and event memories, like project outputs, are relatively easy to capture and codify. But decision memories are often hampered by our tendency to justify decisions after they have been made, and even create elaborate, and often fictional, stories around them. For this reason, it is important to capture decisions as they are being made, not after the fact.
Explaining why other decisions were not made, should also be normal practice. For example, I was working with a client that made decisions on which chemical compound to develop out of a possibility of thousands. There was a cost to initially create any compound, so not all possibilities could be attempted. Decisions were made by a committee on which compound to pursue. However, the decisions on why the other compounds were not developed were never recorded. Several years later, the situation had changed due to improvements in technology and new research findings, and now some of the rejected compounds may have had potential for development. Unfortunately, no records were available to search the rejected compound database and find ones that met the new criteria. Sometimes our decisions not to do something are just as important as our selected course of action, from the perspective of the future. But we never know this in advance.
Recording and sharing our knowledge on a regular basis is what Little Knowledge Management is about, as it focuses on providing ways for groups to try new methods safely. Examples include curation, communities of practice, and mentoring. For complex work, Little KM is critical, as most of the knowledge required is implicit, and not easy to codify. According to the Cynefin framework, in the Complex domain “the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond , and we can sense emergent practice.” Teams working in the complex domain have to make “probes” on a regular basis in order to understand the changing environment. It then becomes essential to develop ways to capture and share the decisions made with each one.
Institutional memory, especially the decisions taken over time, has to be part of the workflow of any knowledge worker doing complex work and making decisions. Ewen Le Borgne writes that, “Institutional memory feeds off strong personal knowledge management among individual staff members“. I define PKM as a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world and work more effectively. PKM is an ongoing process of filtering information from our networks; creating knowledge individually and with our teams, and then discerning with whom and when to share the artifacts of our knowledge. As Roger Schank states, “Comprehension is mapping your stories onto mine.” PKM helps to put your maps out there for others to see.
We have to remember that all of this “knowledge management” is nothing without people engaged in the process. Viola Spolin, creator of the “Theater Games” actor training system, says that, “Information is a weak form of communication.” But, it can be improved, as Gary Schwartz notes, “Story becomes important in the ordering of all this information.” Stories are the glue, holding information together in some semblance of order, for our brains to process into knowledge.