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When people hear an unfamiliar phrase like "institutional memory", they may find it confusing. We can define institutional memory as how an organization preserves and enhances the knowledge of its people, but that's not necessarily much more helpful. A better way is to illustrate with the quintessential American game of baseball.

Most Americans grow up to have at least a passable knowledge of the game of baseball, many times without even knowing how they learned it in the first place. You may not play in a rec league or manage a fantasy team, but if you take your average American to a ballpark, they'll have a basic understanding of the purpose of hitting, fielding, pitching, and the like. That's because baseball is around us -- even if only in the background -- from spring training in late February all the way through the World Series at the end of October. Minor-league baseball teams are everywhere, and tickets are cheap enough that it seems almost impossible to escape an American childhood without having spent at least a couple of days at the ballpark.

But if you ask someone from a non-baseball-playing country, the game will probably seem like a mystery. The world plays and watches soccer and is even giving baseball the boot from the Olympic Games. So how do Americans learn a complicated game so well that we use its jargon as shorthand for everything from dating ("We made it to second base") to politics (where candidates are "on deck" for meetings and rallies)?

It happens because Americans have an institutional memory for baseball. But it's so ingrained in our habits that we generally don't even notice it. But by taking a step back from a game we know well, we can learn how to apply the lessons of baseball's institutional memory to the other things we do:

  • Knowing the rules. Baseball has a long list of formal rules, many of which are well-known (three outs retire the side) and some of which are a little more complicated (like the infield fly rule). But all of the rules are written down. They have been debated and revised many times over, but the entire code of baseball has been written down. Similarly, any institution that wants to preserve its institutional memory has to write its rules on paper. There's no way to avoid it. If baseball's rules were left solely to the memories of the people playing it, the game wouldn't stand a chance. Neither does any other institution hoping to survive for the long term without committing every rule, policy, and procedure to paper somewhere. Nobody's saying that you have to lug out a copy of the rule book for every pick-up game of baseball in the park any more than you have to carry an operations manual around for day-to-day work. But if it isn't written down, it simply cannot be expected to be retained.
  • Testing and measuring with a purpose. Baseball is a beautiful game in part because it has a colossal history of statistics. Teams play 162 games a year in the major leagues, plus spring training and post-season play. Every pitch and every play have been recorded. This mammoth warehouse of data has attracted economists and statisticians to baseball like no other sport. There's even a society dedicated to baseball research. The result is that statistics and measurements aren't feared; they're loved, even by non-sabermetricians. There are, of course, hundreds of decisions made in every game that come from gut instinct or trained reaction. But every manager knows his batting averages, ERAs, and pitches thrown, and uses those to his advantage. One of the great achievements in baseball is the no-no (no runs, no hits) -- a statistical measurement of what didn't happen, as much as of what did. Institutions outside of baseball should be similarly enthused about measuring, recording, and analyzing their statistics. How long has equipment worked without failure? How much time has been spent on maintenance? How much fuel has been used? These sorts of measurements should be recorded and reviewed. There's always going to be room for instinct and intuition, but those are for individuals. The institution needs a form of memory for what works and what doesn't. By measuring and analyzing data, the institution may be able to "learn" to correlate run-time measurements with that moment when Bob the maintenance guy thinks it's time for bearing replacement on motor #3. Some day, Bob won't be there anymore. But the records should be.
  • Marking the field. When players are in the middle of a game of baseball, they don't have to guess whether a hit has gone fair or foul. The foul line is well-marked and extended vertically with the foul pole. Nor does anyone have to guess how far a home run ball has to travel to be out of the park. The outfield distance markers tell exactly how far. Much of what a player needs to know to make the game happen is stored outside his brain: It's recorded in the physical environment around him. We encounter this in our daily lives, too, particularly when we drive: Speed limit signs, painted crosswalks, and passing/no-passing zone centerline markers store and deliver necessary information at the moment we need that information, instead of forcing us to memorize every bit of knowledge that we might need. Building knowledge into the environment is often easier than storing it inside people's heads. And doing so makes the knowledge institutional, rather than something that stays (and leaves) with the people who have it. A good system for institutional memory seeks out ways to store knowledge inside the physical environment. A simple but extremely valuable example is the lock-out, tag-out system. A simple scissors clamp with room for multiple individual padlocks can form an extremely simple but reliable means of ensuring that the safety of individual workers is built into the environment itself. Instead of relying upon human memory or someone calling out to get an "all clear" before starting machinery, a lockout mechanism builds in a simple but reliable means of ensuring that nobody is accidentally overlooked. Building knowledge into the environment frees up people's mental capacity for bigger things.
  • Keeping a box score. Wrigley Field has one of the nation's most recognizable icons: The big green manually-operated scoreboard. The line score for every major-league game appears for the entire audience to see, just as it has for more than 70 years. And on the flagpole atop the scoreboard, a simple "W" flag is run up after a win, originally to tell passing train passengers of a home victory (an "L" flag tells the obvious story to the opposite). Line scores (the boxed parts of box scores) are clear, simple, distilled depictions of the most important factors in a game: Runs scored per inning, total hits, and total errors. A quick glance at the linescore tells the reader everything essential in a single look. Institutions need their own forms of box scores, as well. Institutions need simple "box scores" and "line scores" for their essential performance data. In addition to telling how well things are performing, a routine built around checking the essential details of the institution's performance on a daily basis helps ensure that the most important things are never missed. A baseball line score with a blank space in the top of the seventh inning would immediately signal something wrong. Similarly, an institution needs to know what parts of its performance are so important that any hole in the data stands out immediately upon even a cursory glance.
If institutional memory is a matter of preserving the institutions that are important to us, then it can hardly hurt to take some lessons from one of the longest-standing and most popular institutions in American culture.

Why do you do what you do?

When recording the pieces of knowledge that form a body of institutional memory, an organization needs to make note of the "Why" behind what it does. We do some things for very good reasons, and we do others because of the classic that's the way it's always been done, and in some cases, those reasons are the result of personal preferences or other insufficient reasons to continue doing them that way.

Nobody seems to know, for instance, why the buttons on women's clothes open on the opposite side of those on men's clothes. If the style used on men's clothes is more convenient for right-handed people (who are by far in the majority around the world), then why don't women's clothes adopt the same convention?

This same sort of matter applies in a workplace context: Why does a particular plant open at 7:00 instead of 8:00? Is it because the superintendent is an early bird, or is it because opening early allows the plant to complete a sequence of other tasks so that a certain type of truck traffic is off the road before the afternoon rush hour?

Institutional memory should document why you do what you do. There's nothing wrong with doing anything in a certain way because it suits your personal tastes and preferences -- everyone does that. But the institution should know when there's a purpose behind a manner of doing things and when it's only a matter of taste.

When to document what you know

When starting the process of documenting your institutional memory, you will want to be diligent about documenting whatever you can. But there are often so many things to record that the process can seem overwhelming and it can become difficult to remain committed. Here are a few times that can be used as triggering events to give you special reason to renew your attention to preserving your institutional memory:

  • New equipment: Any time you add new equipment, document what it is, why you added it, why you chose it over comparable items, and what it does. Note where you got it, how to reach the people who can fix it, and what you'll need to do to maintain it.
  • New people: The arrival of new people within the institution is an ideal time to note lots of valuable information. How were they chosen? What are the expectations of them? To whom do they report? Who reports to them? Why are they needed? With whom do they cooperate or collaborate? What did they need to be told upon arrival?
  • New policies: When new policies are instituted, they become a part of the institution. Why were those new policies implemented? What old policies did they replace? Why was a change necessary? Perhaps most easily overlooked: What would make the policy invalid? When should it be reviewed for effectiveness?
  • Vacations: A vacation for one person is an ideal time for everyone else to assess what the vacationer knows and how it relates to keeping the institution afloat. To auditors, mandatory vacation periods are essential to good internal controls (if someone is away and a sudden change emerges in cash receipts, for instance, it serves as a valuable warning flag that something is awry.) To those hoping to preserve institutional memory, a vacation is a valuable opportunity to discover the gaps left behind in the institution's knowledge and procedures when someone is away.
  • Seasonal changes: When the seasons change, so do many of our habits and patterns. Just as a farmer does different chores during planting season and during harvest season, so do most institutions have their own seasonal changes. It's vital to record what the institution does to prepare for those seasonal changes, as well as how it behaves differently when those seasons arrive.

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