Eyewitness memory is never enough

People may resist the notion of documenting their institutional memory, since the process of documentation can take time and effort that don't really seem worthwhile. Considerable evidence exists to show that even things that we think we'll remember well ought to be written down anyway.

Consider the unreliability of eyewitness accounts of crime. The movie "Rashomon" tells the same story from four different angles, each different from the others. The movie may be fictitious, but its essential meaning is actually quite true: Eyewitness accounts of events are extremely unreliable. Even when factors like stress are taken out of the situation, it is thought that we start to forget much of what we've heard or seen within just 20 minutes of the event. This is why police seek to obtain witness accounts of a crime as quickly as possible after an event and why lawyers recommend that drivers involved in auto accidents write down what happened while they're still on the scene. This makes intuitive sense; it might take a moment or two to recall what you had for breakfast this morning, but it would probably take serious thought to remember what you had for lunch a week ago Tuesday. We forget lots of details along the way.

A good program for preserving institutional memory recognizes that an institution has a combination of memories it needs to preserve:

  • event memories, which are things like the construction of new facilities or the arrival of new employees
  • process memories, which note how things are done in order to save time and ensure their reliable repetition in the future
  • decision memories, which explain how the institution chose one path or policy or course of action over another
Event memories are obviously affected by the lapses in eyewitnesses' memories, and it's easy to understand how these can be aided by yearbook-type documentation. Take a photograph of a groundbreaking ceremony, and you'll have a much better idea of who was at the groundbreaking than if you didn't.

But process memories are also deeply affected by eyewitness accounts. Three different people could easily see the same oil change or seal change in a piece of equipment and come away with three entirely different accounts of how to get the same job done. This is why technical writing is such a strange field; everyone knows how frustrating it is to try to use a badly-written operations manual, but nobody seems to be very enthusiastic about writing a better one. Yet doing so is more important than we usually realize -- until something goes wrong and we try to re-establish what we did in the first place. Just try to re-create the steps involved in wiring a home entertainment center, much less tearing down and rebuilding a complex piece of equipment, like a motor or a pump, from scratch.

But even when event and process memories are valued and documented well, it's likely that decision memories are almost entirely neglected. It's easy to understand how it happens -- we don't like to get buyer's remorse, so we convince ourselves that any decision we've reached was the best and we forget about the alternatives. But it's important to document the process of reaching the decision anyway, since those paths not taken may end up being surprisingly useful down the road.

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.

We can always hope that people within an institution will pick up on these memories and this understanding of how things work just by remembering on their own. But just like it's impossible for a student to learn by sleeping on a stack of textbooks and hoping the words work their way into the brain by osmosis, it's impossible to rely on the effectiveness of the human memory without putting pen to paper. As the pen company quotes Confucius as saying, "The weakest ink is mightier than the strongest memory."

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This page contains a single entry by Brian Gongol published on August 21, 2009 12:59 PM.

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