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Reconsidering Institutional Memory

Jim Nordin

A former colleague of mine is retiring after 44 years of Federal service. Immediately after I wondered “why did she wait so long?” I was reminded of the nearly overwhelming problem that most government agencies (and private companies) face as the baby-boom bubble begins to leave the work force–who will maintain the institutional memory?

North tells of path dependence; Lindblom and Simon (among others) describe the incremental steps that lead to organizational change. Where we have been and where we are now largely limit where we can or will go. Organizational culture results largely from the remembered successful solutions to crises of the past. Most of these solution decisions are not recorded with an historical perspective. We record the decisions made but rarely the context within which they were made. In the rule-making process there is some discussion of the basis for changes, but when the new regulation is issued, the old one is totally replaced as if it never existed. Who will remember why we did what we did?

On the other hand, there is current neuro-biologic research that indicates that memories are not, in fact, hard-wired into our brains as previously thought. It now appears that the act of recalling a memory over-writes the old memory. When we recall a past event–correctly or incorrectly–that recollection replaces what was originally stored in our synapses. It is like saving a new version of a document–all the old versions are gone–except all the old memories are gone and replaced with the current memory in use. Assuming this research is correct, how reliable is our institutional memory anyway?

The reinventing government movement takes this notion further along the continuum. In many respects, the reinvention movement can be seen as a refutation of institutional memory. For Gaebler, Gore, and many other management reformers, the seven most dangerous words in government are, “But we’ve always done it that way!” One view of this approach is captured in the old saw that the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over in the face of continued lack of success.

Organizational change is often disruptive–almost violent–and old traditions are discarded quite intentionally and new cultures are created with equal intention. And the intention is to eliminate any semblance of the old.

If our individual institutional memories only provide an incomplete and imperfect recollection of our previous actions, are they still valuable? Might we not be better off making new mistakes because we are viewing our situation with eyes unclouded by memory? Is there an advantage to not remembering how we got in this mess? Might we not examine fresh options if we are not limited by what we have tried before?

Maybe the loss of institutional memory will turn out to be a good thing!

ASPA member Jim Nordin is a retired federal financial manager with 33+ years of service. He is currently working as an occassional adjunct professor and consultant. Passion is for social equity. Email: [email protected] 

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