Organisational Memory | 1933


Seeing Like A Stack, Remembering Like An Organisation

Permanently moved is a personal podcast 301 seconds in length, written and recorded in one hour by @thejaymo


Organisational Memory

Its’ that time of year again. Nanowrimo.

This year has seen me writing one essay a day. Using essay titles as prompts that I’ve collected throughout the year. Some are podcast ideas that never made it, others are chapters of an unfinished book. Some are chapters from a finished book that I’m attempting to re-write. Sitting down and breaking the back of each essay with 1600 words to be really satisfying. It might not be any good but at least i’ve taken an idea from nothing to something. It’s something I have to do every week as part of making this show but doing one a day has been far more challenging. 

Last week I wrote on Temporary Total Institutions, which lead to an exchange with Sam HartDweb or de-centralised web researcher & strategist.  We spoke about how the whole prototyping the consensus process, ideation, discussion, amendment, voting, etc. of an organisation is a much more interesting design space for small organisations than anything that touches the blockchain. He went on to say on Twitter that Rapid prototyping of organisational decision-making processes can *literally* be done on the whiteboard, paper prototype, or in instant message channel. It’s insane that teams spend years building end-to-end crypto project management apps or DAOs before they test out the most important part.

The fast prototyping of functions and social roles within organisations is something I’m really interested in professionally as a consultant and context broker. Ping me via if you’re interested in working with me. So anyways keeping this similar theme going for another episode this week: I’d like to talk about organisational memory. 

Its 2019 and the influence of James C Scott’s 1998 books β€˜Seeing Like A State’ cannot be ignored.

I have found that it is important to restate its central thesis at every opportunity. As lots of people have never even heard of the book, let alone β€˜Legibility’ but are aware of its implications. Especially in the business world.

Seeing like a state is about the emergence of modern states and their bureaucratic assumptions. It charts the multi-century long process in which states reorganised the societies they governed, to make them more legible to the apparatus of governance.

The same can be seen when we talk of the Stacks. See my 2014 Theorising The Web talk Colonising the Clouds. Platforms influence user behaviour to make them more legible to the central database the algorithmic processing platform employees on it. 

In many ways we can now call Scott’s ‘Apparatus of Government’ the platform. Previously we would have referred to ledgers, the census, tax bills etc. But it’s now 2019 and we are in the networked era. A central database sits at the heart of all institutions. Whilst these are of course multi-table relational database management systems (unless we are talking about blockchain) an organisations database as much a slow moving behemoth as the Library of Ashurbanipal  and just as disinclined to change. These mainframes can be self built web platforms or bought in like Salesforce or an Oracle CRM.

Many people have covered the idea of the central database inside a techno social system defining an organisations reality. I will boil all their work down to the following statement ”If its not in the database it does not exist.” This is what it means to see like a stack. If it can’t see it it’s not part of reality. That’s not to say however that institutions don’t remember things outside of the database. It just can’t see it.

Inside any institution there are 5 kinds of Organisational Memory:. 

The first we have already mentioned:

Database Memory

The sum total of the institutions reality.

The second is the classic:

5 Types of Organisational Memory

Institutional Memory

Tacit memory that is shared between employees or participants in the organisation. The kind of memory that requires the ongoing transmission of ideas, values or ideology between members of this group.

The next is the of my first novel descriptions of organisational memory:

Desk Memory

Desk memory is the strange moving horizon of what the company is supposed to remember β€˜right now’. As a participant in an institution if you need to look up how to do something. It will be found in the knowledge base/ process documentation or manuals. Desk memory only the information that an org is required to remember to support the correct functioning and quality of its database memory. 

What folks call a β€˜learning organization’ is the habit or culture of turning institutional memory into desk memory. If one employee asks another how to do something. This should be written down and documented for future reference as it will undoubtedly get asked by someone else (or the same person) again. See also downstream updates incorporating FAQ’s into training materials etc. 

In many insitutions you will find legacy systems (unless you are Apple who just say -fuck you). Consider Microsoft’s extended support for Windows XP. An Operating system first launched in 2001 whos official support lasted 18 years ending in January 8, 2019. 

Which brings me to the next novel type of memory inside an organisation. 

Draw Memory

These are the old manuals and howtos that document bits of software, processes and procedures that employees keep in their desks. Obviously or effectively useless from the point of view the companies desk memory. But it still hangs around as *someone* is required to know how something worked or operated.

The last novel proposal comes via my good friend Alex Fradea.

Working Memory

Kind of leading edge memory of what everyone is always expected to remember in this present moment.

Eg we are supposed to be seen as trusted advisors by our customers, yes the merger is going well with a few expected speed bumps, and my department might be merging. No I’m afraid I can’t say anything about our last investment round.

The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.

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5 responses to “Organisational Memory | 1933”

  1. […] you are unfamiliar with the book Seeing like a State. I gave a brief overview of the thesis back in Episode 1933 on Organisational Memory it is about the emergence of modern states and their bureaucratic assumptions. It charts the […]

  2. […] also talked about the five types of Organisational Memory in episode 19-33. This involved exploring the notion of the apparatus of governance. What it means […]

  3. […] Years ago on 301 I talked about how narrowly I avoided doing a Phd in corporate folklore. I wanted to use ethnographic methods to explore the depth and breadth of an organisation’s collective memory. […]

  4. […] importantly is the development of DAOs. First mentioned on this podcast back in 2019 for those with good memories. Decentralized Autonomous Organizations are a response to the question of online global […]

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