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What is institutional memory, and why does it matter?
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What is institutional memory, and why does it matter?

A headshot of Elaine Keep
Elaine Keep
10th July, 2024
10 min read
Three black-and-white bees buzz around a beehive on a stylised background
A headshot of Elaine Keep
Elaine Keep
10th July, 2024
10 min read
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What is institutional memory?
Examples of institutional memory
Why institutional memory matters
How can you create a knowledge-sharing culture?
Use knowledge repositories to preserve institutional memory
How Confluence can improve institutional memory

Keep your organisation’s collective memory alive. We share why institutional memory is important, and best practices for your company.

Did you know your workplace has a memory? (Don’t worry, it’s not concerned about your blunder at the 2017 Christmas party.) Institutional memory is often referred to as the knowledge of the past. It’s everything about your organisation, informal and formal, scattered in the brains of everyone associated with it. It’s shared when a colleague gives you a ‘heads up’ about something you’d have never known otherwise, and if it isn’t written down, it’s lost when someone leaves.

While a knowledge base captures processes and how-tos on how things should be done, what about the quirks and idiosyncrasies in your business? Why are things done the way they are? What has the past taught us, and how can you draw knowledge from every individual to build a true picture of how your business runs?

Find out how to do just that in this article on all you need to know about institutional memory.

What is institutional memory?

Institutional memory is the collective knowledge of an organisation held by its members. This knowledge may or may not be documented. In businesses, institutional memory is the information employees acquire, retrieve, and retain through working and through formal and informal learning.

Examples of institutional memory

Intangible memory:

  • Anecdotes and stories: That time a business deal fell through, what went wrong? And when an important machine broke, how was it fixed?

  • Personal relationships: Who is related to who in the business? What client is a VIP because of their history with the MD?

  • Leadership styles: When is the best time to ask the boss for budget? Are they unagreeable before lunch? What is the leaders' unique style, preference, and decision-making process?

  • Jargon: What are all the acronyms in your business?

  • Comms: Is using GIFs in the team slack frowned upon, or are memes and light banter encouraged?

  • Vendor preferences: What kind of businesses does the business choose to work with and why?

  • Future plans: What direction would the company like to take? What would be contrary to these plans?

  • General wisdom: Including guidance provided by mentors and experienced colleagues on how to get the job done.

  • Training outcomes: Sessions captured in a formal training session include tips and ideas.
Tangible memory:

  • Reports and records: Documentation of past projects can include meeting minutes, and records of strategic decisions, such as contracts and terms.

  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs): Detailed manuals and guidelines that capture the best practices and processes established over time.

  • Employee handbooks: Outlining company policies, employee benefits, conduct guidelines, and other important information that guide employee behaviour and organisational practices.

  • Financial records: Financial statements, budget reports, and audit records.

  • Development roadmaps: Past and present.

  • Marketing and sales forecasts

  • Brainstorming sessions: Such as recordings/documents.

Why institutional memory matters

1. Improved efficiency:
The longer people work in an organisation, the more of an asset they become. Imagine how great your business would be if all new employees could be up to speed without needing years to build up knowledge through experience. While formal training delivers useful insights, a report from OC Tanner found that only 43% of employees reported having an onboarding experience that was longer than a day.

2. Innovation: While you can have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), detailed manuals, and business guidelines that capture the best practices and processes established over time for employees to follow, institutional memory bridges the missing gaps, and it is by seeing what has been missed that drives innovation.

3. Identity through continuity: Institutional memory ensures that vital knowledge and practices are preserved, providing continuity during organisational change. People may be replaced or leave, but the knowledge from the past can live on. Having accessible institutional memory helps maintain your organisation's culture, values, and traditions, fostering employees' sense of identity and belonging and ensuring customers remain satisfied.

4. Don't repeat the problems of the past: As George Santayana says in The Life Of Reason, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Your team could be wasting time problem-solving issues that have already been addressed or developing a seemingly new idea that was dismissed years ago. Institutional knowledge can ensure more strategic decision-making by drawing on past experiences or build on previous work, rather than starting from scratch.

How can you create a knowledge-sharing culture?

It can be hard to extract knowledge from people in your business when knowledge represents power. Knowledge has to be identified, tracked, and shared, so you need to promote an open communication environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their insights.

If you can foster a culture of knowledge sharing by encouraging employees to document their work and share insights with colleagues instead of hoarding it, you will start to gather true institutional memory and see the benefits.

Ways to create a culture of knowledge sharing:

  • Help people see how other roles work by allowing them time to experience a day or even a few hours in a department as a job swap.

  • Incentivise or reward continuous learning and sharing.

  • Provide access to online courses, workshops, and other educational resources to bring in external knowledge.

  • Facilitate knowledge transfer from experienced staff to newer employees, e.g., at a ‘Lunch And Learn’ or at other times.

  • Extend your onboarding process to include more informal learning methods.

  • Could you create a knowledge cascade in which a specialist shares information with a small group of people who are then responsible for teaching the next level down?

  • Take information in new ways, for example, video/audio content and written documents.

Use knowledge repositories to preserve institutional memory

If you want to capture institutional memory, it’s key that you have a place where you regularly update and maintain comprehensive records of all processes, projects, and decisions. But that doesn’t have to mean you compile a thick dossier of dull information. Bring your organisation’s information to life with an engaging, enticing way of showcasing knowledge.

  • Wikis, knowledge bases, or databases, where employees can document processes, best practices, and lessons learned.
  • Blogs or forums/intranets to share information.
  • Newsletters including tips and showcase articles.
  • Create feedback mechanisms that allow employees to suggest improvements and share their experiences, fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

How Confluence can improve institutional memory

Confluence allows you to create dynamic wikis, knowledge bases, blogs, and more where employees can document processes, best practices, and lessons learned.

  • Repositories are easily searchable, ensuring valuable information is at everyone's fingertips.

  • The ability to create a Confluence blog allows employees to share information, insights, and updates, keeping everyone informed and encouraging knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

  • Interactive newsletters can be distributed from the platform regularly.

  • You can gather feedback in Confluence with forms, allowing employees to suggest improvements and share their experiences.

  • Confluence supports real-time collaboration, letting teams work together on documents and projects simultaneously. This ensures that the latest knowledge and updates are captured immediately and accurately.

  • Confluence templates mean neater captures! Standardising documentation and ensuring consistency across all records improves the experience for everyone.

With Confluence, you can transform how your organisation captures, preserves, and shares institutional memory. The more you can retain, the better off you'll be. With that competitive edge, a strong organisational culture will deliver long-term success without making the mistakes of the past.

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Written by
A headshot of Elaine Keep
Elaine Keep
Content Writer
Elaine has established herself as a respected authority in the HR industry and uses her experience gained as the head of marketing in the employee rewards and recognition software sector to inform her reporting.