Building a corporate memory

A "corporate memory" (a term most often used in the business world but of high relevance also to the not-for-profit sector) refers to an organisation's historic records and experience.

An organisation's corporate memory is an essential tool for allowing reliable predictions, estimations and forecasting. Yet it all too often resides only in the minds of board members, staff and volunteers; when they leave, so too does the knowledge.

This is a situation your organisation should strive to avoid.

The benefit of establishing a corporate memory or central records repository is that if someone leaves your organisation, or a different person moves into a particular position the next year, they have the benefits of your experiences - good and bad - and your contacts.

What's at stake

In working towards its mission, your organisation has built up a terrific store of knowledge relating to:

  • Which activities, projects or programs work best in achieving your mission;
  • What sort of things haven't worked - and why they haven't worked;
  • Who you can call on to help (volunteers, businesses/friends in the community, sympathetic MPs, etc.)

And a million other smaller pieces of information that go to making up the bigger picture of what you do and how and why you do it.

One of the most common problems for community groups - and many businesses - is that so much effort goes into planning and doing the work and so little into recording all the finicky details to establish the "corporate memory".

Think about what would happen if certain key people suddenly stopped turning up. Could someone else step into the breach to handle the budget, the bills, the annual general meeting, and all the other things that need to be done to ensure your organisation continues to function properly?

Write it down and file it away

Effective organisations are those that recognise that knowledge is "owned" by the entire group and not just by an individual. It is terribly unproductive to keep on making the same mistakes each year because coherent records were not kept. To set up a living corporate memory, you need to plan and establish a workable record-keeping system. This means:

  • Writing things down. Your "corporate memory" should not comprise just detailed reports, (although these are useful in some instances). It can also include:
    • File notes
    • Annotated contact books
    • Correspondence
    • Newsletters
    • Contracts
    • Lists - of volunteers, of sponsors, of partners, of supporters, etc.
    • Annual reports
    • Speeches
    • Permits and licenses
    • Photographic records
    • Media releases and subsequent media exposure
    • Meeting agendas and minutes
    • Other documents relevant to your organisation.
  • Making sure your records are in a useful format. Pages and pages of information are not useful if people do not have the time to read them. Your goal is to make things much easier for the person who follows in your shoes (and for yourself if this is a task you will need to do again). Having to wade through a lot of useless information before you get to the useful stuff is more of a hindrance than a help.
  • Making sure your records are stored in an appropriate manner. Information is of little use if people don't know where to find it or - worse - don't know it exists. Your files need to be well established, well kept and accessible. If you don't have a good filing system, find out if any of your volunteers have experience in this area and put them to work.
  • Keeping it up. You need to make sure record-keeping becomes part of your organisational culture; think of it as gift given well in advance of a birthday. Make sure everyone understands the importance of writing things down, keeping files and making their knowledge accessible.
  • Backing up the paper with face-to-face handovers. When key people do leave the organisation, establish a practice of scheduling adequate time for "hand-over" sessions with the departing staff member and remaining or new staff. This is a time to go through the files.
  • Plan for future questions. Ideally, you should keep the new contact details of the departing staff members/volunteers attached to the files, with the understanding that they will not be approached for information unless absolutely necessary. With a practice of diligent recording-keeping established in your organisation, this life-line will rarely if ever have to be used.

The board/committee

The board's job is not just to ensure that a strong corporate memory exists in other parts of the organisation, but that the board itself does its bit too. Having the benefit of a strong corporate memory can make all the difference between making a good, informed decision and a repeating all the mistakes of the past.

Ensure excellent records of board meetings are kept. Files should include agendas, detailed minutes, supporting documents and any other information Board members have used in their deliberations.

Board records should also be easily accessible (keeping in mind confidentiality requirements) and logically filed. As with other records, there is little point keeping great historical information if no one can find it when they need it.

Those organisations that keep a strong corporate memory are able to build on their successes year by year through constantly learning and refining processes and contacts.