Knowledge Management
May 7, 2012

A treatment for corporate memory loss

CGE Vol.13 No.3 March 2007

Karl Carisse says he’s not a “historian” despite his Master’s degree in Canadian history – but history has certainly become one of his biggest concerns since he became acting director of Infrastructure Operations at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) over a year ago.

The history he worries about is that of his program – what policies and approaches were developed over the years, how and why they evolved the way they did, what went wrong in the process, what went right, and who knows where the answers are? In short, it’s about maintaining the program’s corporate memory and it’s a big problem for the 35-year old manager in one of the federal government’s oldest and most complex departments.

Carisse reflects: “As I was being introduced to the staff of my new directorate at headquarters and the managers across the country, I was dismayed to hear every third or fourth person presented as ‘this is Bill – he’s been running his program for over 30 years – knows every nook and cranny of this area. The lucky guy will be retiring next month.’ By the time introductions were complete, I could see that I had a major and immediate management problem.”

The public service is facing an unprecedented loss of managers at all levels. Baby boomers are leaving their cubicles in droves to teach English as a second language in China, become organic gardeners on Vancouver Island, or study in areas that aren’t essential for a good job – a myriad of choices made possible by new-found personal time and hard-earned pensions. About three-quarters of executives and a third of scientists and professional staff will have retired over the ten-year period ending in 2011 according to government projections, and with them, much of what they know about the management of their departments and agencies will be gone.

The problem is not unique to Canada. David DeLong’s book Lost Knowledge describes how the Bush Administration has pledged to send American astronauts back to the moon. The problem is, NASA doesn’t remember how to get there. The engineers who worked on the original Apollo program were given early retirement around the same time that the blueprints to build the Saturn booster rockets went missing. Rob Ferguson’s Knowledge Marketing Watch newsletter notes lessons of experience are constantly being lost in organizations because few have the processes in place enabling them to reflect on past actions.

What can be done?
Canada’s Public Service Commission recognizes corporate memory loss as an issue important enough to include in its staffing strategy guidelines. It recommends such processes as a pre-retirement special assignment program that tasks employees within sight of retirement with the job of transferring corporate memory to younger colleagues. Their substantive position is filled by a new appointee while they are on assignment.

Bringing retired staff back as casual or term/specified period employees to shadow their replacements and transfer their corporate memory is another approach suggested by the PSC.

“The trouble with these approaches,” Carisse has found, “is that they cost money at a time when salary dollars are in short supply, because you need to continue to pay the people engaged in the transfer of their corporate knowledge while at the same time paying the replacements doing their substantive jobs.”

Emergency digs
Carisse came up with an approach appropriate to a history graduate: “Archaeologists use an interesting but desperate methodology if an important site is discovered at an excavation where a new building is being erected. They carry out an ‘emergency dig’ to retrieve and catalogue as much historic material as possible in the time available before the big new steel tower goes up. I had little time and no salary money, so that was the option I picked.”

Carisse found his “archeologist” at the Institute On Governance, a non-profit think tank in Ottawa. One of IOG’s experts is John Graham, a former director general of Lands and Environment at INAC. John had already developed an “emergency dig” approach for a former INAC colleague, Peter Wyse, head of the Community Economic Development Programs. Wyse was facing the retirement of many of his most senior and experienced experts. At the same time, the 2003 evaluation of his program found that some economic development officers working on behalf of First Nation and Inuit communities needed advice and information to carry out their responsibilities. So Wyse engaged the IOG to develop a tool to better equip those officers to understand and support the economic development needs and approaches for these communities.

“We began with a workshop bringing together experienced practitioners from First Nations, Inuit and federal government organizations. Together, we identified tools, resources and good practices. These were supplemented with other material identified through follow-up research, and assembled in an electronic report incorporating a ‘click through’ approach that, wherever possible, linked good practices with examples or tools,” Graham explained.

The memory stick
Carisse took a look at the IOG-developed tool, called Memory Stick, and decided to apply it. “In addition to squeezing out all the best practices and lessons learned from my retiring staff, I used the workshop to get their views on program directions for the future, and that also produced valuable results.

“The wealth of information in the tool itself is impressive, but the documents attached are also invaluable. The basic document is over one hundred pages long, but its many important electronic links are searchable, so it is a very complete library of not only tools, tips, and best practices, but also program descriptions, planning documents, reporting guides – in fact, anything a capital services officer might need.”

Waren Ames, from INAC’s Manitoba region, emailed one of the project organizers at INAC to say “as a new Capital Services Officer, I have found the Capital Facilities and Maintenance Program tool extremely useful, both in hard copy form, as well as an interactive tool using the CD.” (Another important component of the tool is that it can be copied onto a CD or flash drive, taken to meetings, loaded into a laptop and consulted on site in First Nation and Inuit communities.)

“Obviously the Memory Stick approach to preserving corporate memory is not limited to INAC applications,” says Michael Bassett, a senior program officer at the IOG who has been actively involved in the program. “We have had indications of interest from other departments and the NGO sector, which faces significant corporate memory issues of its own. It is a fast, relatively low-cost approach that, while not a complete answer, certainly provides an effective, systems-based solution to an urgent problem.”

The tool, described in the sidebar, is a basic, structured approach to gathering corporate memory and putting it in one place in an organized way. In addition to capturing corporate wisdom for future leaders, it helps pay tribute in a tangible way by recognizing employees’ experience and wisdom.

Ruth Cardinal worked as a communications specialist in government for 30 years, including Assistant Secretary to Cabinet, Communications and Consultation. She is now a communications consultant in private practice.

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