FT on organizational memory

Managers are the guardians of company history

Institutional memory is valuable and without it we risk repeating past mistakes

Years ago, my parents decided to build a summerhouse in the garden and consulted a neighbour who had once been the property’s housekeeper. The octogenarian sucked her remaining teeth. “Mark my words: it will blow down. The last one did,” she said. “It stood for 50 years — but it blew down.”

This is the problem with tapping institutional memory. Some of your colleagues are the only people who know about the organisation’s strategic errors and successes. But like all autobiography, their recollections may be partial, and their instincts may tend to preservation rather than progress.

I was reminded of the summerhouse (still standing, by the way), when I read last week’s interview with Konica Minolta’s chief executive. Shoei Yamana found section heads, known as “bucho”, resisted his reforms. Their attachment to the status quo was founded on the group’s historical victories, but, as Mr Yamana put it, “We cannot live with past success”.

Sweep away this layer of middle management, as new brooms are wont to do, and you will quickly hear the complaint that the organisation is losing institutional memory. This is invariably self-interested. Still, a little like taking a mallet to a retaining wall, it is best to understand what you are removing before you tear it out. Otherwise, you will find yourself in the position of those new chief executives who axe a group of old hands only to have to rehire them as “consultants” because they were the only people who knew how to fix an old piece of kit, read a defunct computer language, or even (in the case of the worldwide pilot shortage) fly a plane.

For the whole article, see the FT  .