Organisational amnesia – is it safe to let go yet?

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The UK is having a bonfire today, well ahead of the usual Guy Fawkes Night celebrations. The Bonfire of the Quangos will be abolishing somewhere in the region of 180 QUasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations today in a bid to cut costs and reduce the confusion around these organisations. The arguments for and against are being well-rehearsed – arguments for tending to be Quango-specific, while arguments against being more generic.

It’s not unusual for quangos – and departments or taskforces or… – to outlive their usefulness, but it can take a brave person to take the decision to close them. Unless a turning point is reached – such as a new administration looking to reduce costs, complexity and government size – and distinguish itself dramatically from its predecessor.

But often there is a working assumption that there is a good (or at least expedient) reason that the quango was created in the first place. And, if you don’t know why it was created in the first place, you’ll be reluctant to call time on it – there may be some crucial piece that you may miss.

Organisational amnesia can obstruct decision-making.

It’s one of the reasons why any large organisation needs some way of building an organisational memory. Particularly if senior levels are populated with secondments or external candidates – people who haven’t risen within the organisation itself and therefore learned its particular histories.

It used to be part of the unspoken role of the informal network, of apprenticeships, of long-standing (if not actually senior) employees – that they would naturally share stories of what had happened previously – stories that carry the context and reasoning, the thinking processes and the lessons implicitly. But that’s less and less the case now – fewer people stay on as long, more take early redundancy – and the organisational memory atrophies.

We’ve seen it with clients – one organisation had departments that no-one could quite understand why it was there, departments that seemed to give the overall organisation a mis-shapen feel. But senior staff were traditionally rotated in from other parts of the parent organisation for a period of a few years, then rotated out again. So none of them knew the reasoning for the odd departments – and few, despite their being good leaders and managers in other ways, were willing to be the one that turned round and axed a department when they weren’t going to be around for long anyway.

Interestingly, at lower levels of the organisation – the workers rather than managers – there was organisational memory and understanding. The trick was to create mechanisms by which it was conveyed – and heard – by the senior people.

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