Where is history? LO29775

From: Arnold Kransdorff (ak@corporate-amnesia.com)
Date: 01/07/03

Replying to LO29769 & LO29762 & LO29714

Barry Mallis, A M de Lange and Andrew Campbell put their finger on one of
the most neglected of management tools. They - quoting Leyton's references
to memory and forgetting - mention the abstruse subject of "history"
which, for a whole raft of reasons, clouds the eyes of most businessmen
and academics in their pursuit of achieving and teaching decision-making
excellence. I prefer to refer to history as Organisational Memory (OM) or
experience or know-how or practice, whether short-term or long-term. It
might be 'faddish' but it does seem to take it out of the realm of 'dates'
and 'Kings and Queens' that many of us - no thanks to our school teachers
- associate with the subject.

To illustrate its importance to learning/knowledge management/business, I
often quote two luminaries on the subject. J.G. Pleasants, a former Vice
President of Proctor & Gamble, said "No company can afford the luxury of
re-discovering its own prior knowledge. Understanding the company's past
can lead to adapting previous successes, avoiding old mistakes and gaining
knowledge far beyond personal experience." The other comes from Harvard
scholar Dr Alan M. Kantrow in his 1984 book "The Constraints of Corporate
Tradition": "If we ignore its influence, we do not escape its power. All
we do is remain to some extent its prisoners without ever really knowing
that is what we are." Kantrow's observation is that managers' choices and
actions may find a ready place in memory but the reasons and the intended
significance of their deeds quickly float away out of reach and beyond
recall. He observes that while all organisations have some form of recall,
their memory is frequently inaccurate. "The style of a business
presentation, the kinds of evidence that tend to sway decisions, the
shared sense of what constitutes relevant information about a new market
or product, the deep-seated visceral preference for certain lines of
business - all these characteristics, and a thousand others like them, are
the subtle products of memory. In no two organisations are they exactly
the same, nor in any two parts of the same organisation. Intuitively we
know this. But on the job we usually disregard it. In particular
individuals forget both the density and duration of the activity
underlying the surface facts. We forget that, like an iceberg, nine tenths
of their mass lies hidden, well below the normal waterline of vision. And
we forget that the part we can see is not just 'there' but is very much
something built, something constructed or pieced together over time."

Against these explanations, it is instructive that organisations make
little formal effort to pass down their experiences from one generation to
the next. Stacked up against individuals' short and selective memory,
their defensive reasoning processes and the flexible labour market where,
today, few individuals remain with their employers for more than four
years, organisational memory is either truncated, imperfect or nil. Over
in the education sector, there is virtually no local corporate and/or
wider business history in the system, even in business schools. The only
history that does feature in business education, albeit in declining
measure, is economic history, which typically deals with macro fiscal
issues as they affect national and international constituencies, a
discipline that is only remotely associated with the day-to-day running of
a business. Ironically, subjects like political, military and social
history are an integral part of many general curricula. Elsewhere,
musicians study music history, artists art history, architects
architectural history and soldiers military history. But for business,
little more than zilch. The result? Little inheritance and a widespread
corporate amnesia - and the individual's ability to learn from experience
and make better decisions is dramatically reduced.

For anyone interested in the subject, I've written two Papers for the
University of Nottingham Business School on OM's various applications as a
management/teaching tool. Contact j.wilson@nottingham.ac.uk or come back
to me for copies.

Arnold Kransdorff.
Email ak@corporate-amnesia.com
Internet websites: www.pencorp.co.uk & www.corporate-amnesia.com


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