Monday, May 18, 2009

Haunted by the Box of Rocks

Previously posted at GTEC Blog:

At GTEC 2008, I presented a seminar called “Managing Corporate Memory in Public Sector”. The well-attended session explored the pending shift in workforce demographics as the Boomer generation approaches retirement age. Sectors at most risk included government, utilities, engineering, transportation and manufacturing. I sought to explore how IT and IM professionals could play a strategic role as our workplace transforms and to minimize risk of information and knowledge loss.

Though this is no longer a new topic challenging public sector management, the situation continues to grow in urgency and awareness. Over the weekend, I noticed that Gartner Research VP, Jeffrey Mann, had twittered about a recent spike in his customer inquiries precisely on this topic. He “tweeted”: “three of this morning’s 4 calls are on knowledge management (two on capturing experience of retiring employees) who says KM is dead?”.

Whether we call it knowledge management, corporate memory preservation, succession planning… whether the project is led by IM/RM, Human Resources or IT… regardless of the tools we use to capture the intrinsic knowledge held in the brains of our most senior valued employees – we know it must be done. Public Sector is a knowledge-economy enterprise. Information, policies, and programs: services are delivered to the citizens, residents, businesses within our jurisdiction to provide a stable infrastructure for social, commercial and political activities. To not pay attention to prospect of losing mentorship, best practices, and institutional culture is to do a disservice to the investment we’ve made in cultivating depth and breadth of public sector experience.

We all have our “keep me up at night” moments. Mine is a story told to me at the annual ARMA Conference in 2006. I was conducting a workshop on this topic of “Managing Corporate Memory” and a woman from an academic institution came up to me, very pleased to see the research I had done on the topic. As part of her Records Management responsibility, she was tasked with capturing the legacy paper and physical records of the scientists and engineers who retired from her institution. She told me the story of a scientist who upon his departure handed to her a large box of ore samples. He said to her very intently, “make sure you hang on to these… they are very very important”. And so she took them. And put them on a shelf, documented with the date and location and name of the scientist who left them behind. She looked at me rather sadly, and admitted that she had no idea what those rocks meant, or WHY they were so important. There was no corporate memory preservation mandate to ensure the samples got to a new researcher who could continue the work. So to this day, they sit on a dark shelf.

Was the cure for cancer in that box of rocks? Did they tell us something about our world that could make our lives better? We may never know.

To learn more about this topic of Managing Corporate Memory, click here to listen to a recorded educational seminar we hosted earlier this year. Any comments or feedback welcomed.

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