Institutional Memory

There is a fine line between tradition and innovation. We need both. But we get into the most trouble when one dominates the other.

Another entity in the palimpsest cohort is “institutional memory” or its capricious twin, “institutional amnesia.” An example might go like this:

A woman works in a department doing various related jobs for thirty-nine years. She is older, perhaps on the verge of retirement, perhaps not. Her immediate supervisors come and go over the course of those thirty-nine years and know aspects of this woman’s life and her job duties.

Supervisor X runs the department, implementing new procedures but keeping the structure and scaffolding the same because…it works. It is a crowd-pleaser keeping the  the clientele happy.

But Supervisor X has only been there for sixteen years and has watched the woman age. The woman is perceived as a vestige of something, a left over. An unfathomable and so is not valued. Supervisor X can’t put a value to something he or she hasn’t experienced. He or she can’t understand its evolution if they don’t know the genesis.

The woman is fired or eased out, retired. Perhaps they view her as a liability?

But the way things are done,  the formula that pleases the clientele, is still in use. People like the routine, but they don’t know why or by whom the routine was created. Supervisor X doesn’t realize that the woman she/he fired is the initiator of the “why they do what they do.” The supervisor just knows that it keeps people happy.  The palimpsest is the procedure removed from the woman. The woman is, if she is still living, a restless ghost of what once was. And that makes people uncomfortable.

Click on the link and check out a great article from the BBC on institutional memory in the business sector.

This doesn’t occur only in the business world. You name an institution: churches, car dealerships, fraternal organizations, it’s there. For example, institutional memory is just as fleeting in the academic community as anywhere else, especially when factoring in the four year generation output of an undergraduate college or university. While I don’t think that Gen X is as “memory vagrant” as this article suggests, it does pose to the reader the importance of institutional memory in the university system.

What fractured institutional memories have you witnessed first-hand? Have you ever wondered why something was always done a certain way? Where did that come from? What is the spectral palimpsest trying to say?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s