The persistence of (organisational) memory

Memories make us who we are. They give us our sense of self.  Through memories we make sense of the now.

But they can hinder us too. Take this conversation that I had recently.

Them                     If I do X, then Y will happen, for sure.

Me                         In three years, I have never known that to be the case.

Them                     Ah, well it used to happen.  About ten years ago……..

Just like the proverbial elephant, we never forget.

Organisational stuff hangs around. For longer than you might think. Especially the stuff we remember as negative.

Memories, hard wired, into both individual and culture.  Beyond the time that they are helpful.  Beyond the time that they are still true.  Memories that grow larger than themselves.  Become myths and legends. Buried in our subconscious, ready for recall.

Shadows of leaders long past but who still loom large. A piece of difficult feedback lingering in the back of our minds. The project that didn’t go at all well. Or on the other hand, the time that we succeeded or the time that we celebrated together. A piece of genuine appreciation.

Stories written in the walls.

We say that culture is the ‘way we do things around here’.  But it’s not just how we do things today but yesterday and the day and days before that.

As leaders and HR professionals, what we do today reverberates into tomorrow. We constantly create memories for people.  How we handle that redundancy programme. How we speak to people every day.  How that project gets managed, or doesn’t.  What people get rewarded for, or don’t.  The 121 that we cancel.  What information is shared and what is kept secret.  What the Employee Handbook said in 1978.

It all hangs around for the long term.

Just like the individual memory bank, the organisational one is persistent too.  And as well as long lasting, unreliable.  Memory shifts and changes as time goes by. Convenient recall, or otherwise.

In organisations we so often strive for new stuff. New cultures, new visions and missions.  A new set of values.  Re-launched policies.  Another change programme.  But you can’t force people to forget what is remembered and therefore real to them.  You can’t say ‘ah well that was yesterday, so forget all about it’.

How long does a memory last? Like Dali’s melting clocks, memories are elastic.  Our capacity to store them is immeasurable.  It is a cliché that people have the memory of an elephant.  What is writ large for us is stored for the long term. In contrast, trivia, stuff that doesn’t cast a shadow, is cast aside from the short term memory banks.

We can’t ask our people to forget the organisational history. But we can challenge the old and create the new.  Being careful, always, in the organisational memories that we create.

2 thoughts on “The persistence of (organisational) memory

  1. A very interesting piece. This reminded me of a company I used to work for where the induction programme was handled by HR on the first day and then by co-workers for the week that followed. The information your co-workers would share was mostly anegdotes and stories about how things used to be done rather than how they’re supposed to be done. Often in the tone of “things used to be so much better”. I guess it was quite natural for those that were at that company for years – but a missed opportunity by HR who could have organised things differently to focus on the future instead.

  2. So true; I had a client where – a bit like Ronnie Corbett’s broom – neither the managers nor the staff about whom the stories were told were still employed, yet still, the stories had purchase. Like a ghost story.

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