Two days ago I turned 50. There. I said it out loud!
One of the features of ‘milestone birthdays’ is that you receive a lot of empathy from your peers. This was demonstrated very practically at our ‘We’re all 50 this year’ school reunion in Devon, where I spent my childhood. (I'm in the back row, 8th in from the left).
It was lovely to see around 70 schoolmates with whom I’d long since lost touch, all together again thanks largely to the magic of Facebook events and some additional detective work by the organising committee.
What really struck me was the way in which we reconstructed our memories from 34 years ago by combining fragments. None of us had the whole story, and I suspect that most of us had long forgotten or misplaced the memories we had – but somehow, when we started to reminisce and ‘ditt’ together, our collective memory became greater than the sum of the parts. Our memory had been socially reconstructed from distributed, social storage. It wasn’t just what we could remember ourselves, it was what we sparked back from our deeper memories.
It got me wondering how much opportunity we give to this kind of reflection and retrieval when we consider our organisational knowledge.
- Is it built largely from individual expert interviews, webinars and artefacts?
- Are we missing out on what we could re-construct together?
- Can we do more with processes and tools to access the kind of collective organisational memory and learning which is more insightful than the sum of our individual memories?
And what about the reverse process - when we disband teams, or retire experts - what is the impact on the availability of knowledge?
It's easy to assume that when a team dissolves, each of the members take the knowledge, lessons and stories with them. Completely. Within this assumption, every team member is a repository and can be managed and reallocated as a lossless, portable knowledge transfer approach, plugged into the next project just like a lego brick.
My experience is that many of the stories and insights don't reside wholly with an individual - they only surface when two former team members (or school mates) come together and spark each other's memories to release the value. Without the other half, the knowledge value of that shared story is volatile, and at risk of dispersing into the ether.
In this world there is a real loss of knowledge when a team is disbanded and reallocated - it's not all carried by the individuals, recoupable from a set of separate interviews. The sum of the separated parts is now less than the sum of the parts when they were together.
If you can remember your school Chemistry, you might say that shared memory is a covalent bond, not an ionic one!
Perhaps the Beatles were right all along, that we really do get by with a little help from our friends.