I can't remember

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

Yesterday I saw a tweet from the top @iamadonut which read “Another farewell presentation: we're losing the corporate memory...”. It turns out that they are losing the person who does the entire officer/member IT training function, with that now being split up and taken on by other teams.

I’m not saying here that those taking things forward aren’t capable in their own way, but this short exchange re-rang an alarm bell in my mind which has been there for several years now. Thanks to the current financial crisis we are mired in (and as an aside, when did it stop being the credit crunch?) we are losing staff both good and bad hand over fist and as a result we really are losing that organisational history and knowledge Peter highlighted.

We’ve spoken about these people before. They are the people you turn to when you don’t know where the thick paper is kept for printing an important document, or who to speak with to get some information for a report. They are the people with their names on the papers from committee meetings from the 90s and who have seen bright young things arrive, get chewed up and spat out with scars and a wiser look in their eyes.


This group of stalwarts leaving has at least two effects on those they leave behind. Firstly we lose an invaluable resource for advice and guidance and therefore have to rely on perhaps still capable but certainly less experienced sources. Those ideas which need those key questions asked? You’ll need to ask somewhere else now (perhaps on our forum, hint hint?). The sensitive political situations? Work it out yourselves.

Secondly it obviously puts more pressure on those remaining to step up to the plate and develop their own responses. As a football fan I often liken this to what I call the ‘Cantona Effect’; when the enigmatic Frenchman joined Man Utd in the mid 90s he took their squad to the highest levels of domestic success and turned them into the biggest and most dominating club of the era. When he left they could so easily have fallen apart, but what happened instead was a talented group of youngsters took the opportunity to step up to the mark and raise their own games even higher to compensate. Where such talent exists this can work, but only if it is carefully managed, supported and nurtured.

Of course, this entire process is compounded by what are usually at best poor handover processes. After all, how many of us have meticulously prepared detailed handover notes upon leaving one job, setting out step by step instructions to the newcomers as to what they should be getting on with and how to make everything work only to then ourselves start a new job and take no more than a cursory glance at those left by the person who’s job we move into? We all want to make our own marks and get to grips with things in our own ways, so why would we just pick up as things were?

We all know that good practice involves timing things so that there is some overlap between leavers and arrivers, hence notice periods being at least a month and sometimes two. Instead of course what often happens is we leaves it on the to-do list and then think about taking the opportunity to re-evaluate the job, so don’t actually get going until it’s too late. I have joined jobs in the past to find both fantastic notes for half the role I was taken on joined by a hundred random sheets of paper and photocopies with loose handfuls of post-it notes and stickers for the rest. Guess which was more useful?

That being said, even those better notes didn’t convey anywhere near as much information as sat in my predecessors head, nor the heads of those others who have gone before. There are details and nuances which are only picked up through experience and which can never be fully conveyed no matter how detailed the notes. There are the memories of conversations which happened and reasons why decisions were made, as well as memories of all those decisions which weren’t made and the reasons behind them.

Those latter memories are potentially even more important than the former, as usually the successful decisions result in actions and projects which can more easily be tracked. Knowing what didn’t happen and why means we are less likely to repeat them, or at least to adjust our actions accordingly.

Of course, this is based on the presumption that those leaving are positive rocks around which others orbit. There are instances where people moving on and taking their memories with them is a weight lifted from the shoulders of others, but perhaps that’s a subject for another day.

Instead, local government needs to get just a little better in terms of succession planning and handovers, lest we lose the lessons it took decades to learn and doom ourselves to repeating the same mistakes made before over the next few decades.

Posted: 5 years 5 months ago by Straight Bat Comms #45
Straight Bat Comms's Avatar
I still feel guilty for leaving with a head full of knowledge from years of experience with politicians. But I'm sure they don't miss me as much as I miss them. Many key people left before I did, the ones you could phone with all the questions no one else had answers too. Succession planning, we wish hey?
Posted: 5 years 5 months ago by MartinHowitt #46
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I wonder if this is partly a good thing. We all know that things need to change and part of that process is going to be unlearning the way we do things now. A fresh eye on things may not be such a bad idea in some places (and I know a few).

I realise there's an inefficiency to not knowing your way around the system, but if we need to dismantle part of the system itself anyway then maybe this sort of thing just gives us a head start?
Posted: 5 years 5 months ago by Tom #47
Tom's Avatar
I used to worry about this. I guess I saw myself as someone who, after a few decades, had gathered in his head a great deal of the components of what you call “corporate memory”. However, it was liberating to face up to what these actually amounted to. In the main, they were, for example, compendious knowledge of jobs that no longer existed, recollections of places that had long since closed, and skills with technologies consigned to the skip many moons ago.

My concern had arisen because I had some sympathy with Homer Simpson and his comment “How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain.”

It was liberating to rationalize on what I could “let go” mentally. Over time I saw that the organization had not become a worse place because I’d forgotten an important component of a job I had in the late 1980s, for example. No, much else had made it a worse place. Who cared about “corporate memory” when my (supposedly) annual performance-related pay interview only covered the six months since my new manager had taken up post? Or when the job application form I’d been sent only asked me to specify the last two posts I’d held, in some convoluted effort by the organization not to discriminate against “less experienced candidates”?

I was told that the reorganization under which I left would change everything about the way the job was done. So, no thanks, there’s not a lot of point in you writing any notes.” My sense of schadenfreude from tales of chaos has worn off now, and the “Sorry to bother you…” ‘phone calls have stopped.

Might it simply be true that you don’t miss what you never had? Or at least, “ignorance is bliss”?

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