Organizational Memory: When Remembrance Isn’t Enough

Many organizations depend on employees to remember decisions that were once made and the implications of those decisions for the organization. That is a mistake. Even if we trust in our staff, there is always a risk involved in depending on the memory of any one person or even of several people in an organization.

Not too long ago I received a telephone call from “Sarah,” an administrative staff person at ABC organization that had leased space to the nonprofit I worked for years ago. I was asked if I remembered principles of the last lease agreement between ABC and the nonprofit that I had directed. I found it quite interesting that no one in the organization I worked for or in ABC had documented the details of the lease agreement. It was fascinating to me that Sarah was calling on me, a former employee, to inquire after six years about the lease agreement.

It turns out that both the director of ABC and I had moved on to other positions and that no one in his office or my office could find the relevant information to confirm the details of the lease agreement. I know that I had filed them in the appropriate e-mail file and I transferred it to the administrative assistant in the office when I left the position. I also know that my colleague at ABC had discussions with his director of finance and they both were party to the negotiations that led to the agreement between the organizations.

Obviously, either the staff members of both organizations were not familiar with their own filing systems or the correspondence between the two nonprofits had been lost over time. There is a great deal all of us can learn from incidents like this one. I would speculate that this is not an isolated case and that at one time or another many of us have had the challenge of trying to find important documents detailing the particulars of a decision.

An organization’s history and development can be understood through the decisions that have been made by its board of directors, staff and administration. This comprehensive overview is not only important for a retrospective look at what the organization has accomplished, but can also impact the agency’s day-to-day operations. What tells the story of the organization as a whole are everything from lease agreements to salary negotiations to establishing work hours in agencies that have flexi-hours as a policy.

In general, this is not a problem as far as decisions of boards of directors are concerned. In most cases, there are minutes taken of board meetings that are either distributed to the members of the board or kept on file for future reference. The board members are accountable for their decisions and so many organizations are very careful about documenting their decisions.

In practice, an organization’s memory is only as good as its ability to recall the decisions that have been made and therefore relying on the memory of employees or former employees is not a sound policy. Chief Executive Officers (CEO) are responsible for many decisions during their tenure and on a day-to-day basis they are called upon to both decide and adjudicate a myriad of issues. When the organization depends on one person’s memory, or even several peoples’ memories, then the agency is taking a very big risk as is evident from the example offered above.

The best way to prevent these kinds of situations from occurring is to develop a clear policy concerning the filing of administrative decisions. One person in the organization should be responsible for recording decisions in writing and filing them in a way that they will be kept safe on one hand, and easily recalled on the other. This will mean that when someone raises a question about the agency’s agreements, policies and/or practices, they can be easily retrieved.

I know this may seem like a “no brainer” and something that should be obvious, yet as is evident from my experience, in practice this is not always followed. Just as a lease agreement between two agencies was misplaced and the staff of one of the organizations was relying on my recall for details, any organization could find itself in a similar predicament if they are not careful about preserving documents. In this case I happened to remember the context, content, date and even relevant parties for this specific decision, however, there is no guarantee that this would always be true for every organization and pertinent staff members. The lesson here is to make sure your record keeping and filing policies and practices are in order and functioning to prevent these kinds of problems.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

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