Organizational Amnesia, Accountability Buddies, and Other Things I learned at the Grant Managers Network Conference | Beth's Blog

Organizational Amnesia, Accountability Buddies, and Other Things I learned at the Grant Managers Network Conference

Capacity Building

March was the “Iron Woman Multi-Conferencethon” for me and I’m just catching up.   In mid-March,  I had a whirl wind day at the Grant Managers Network Annual Conference where I did the following:

I’ve captured some good notes, tweets, photos, and shared resources for each session, but here I wanted to dive into a few interesting ideas that bubbled up.

Organizational Amnesia

Roberto Cremonini used the term “Organizational Amnesia” referring to organizations that may not be measuring, documenting, and extracting learning from data and other artifacts.    This creates an organization of zombies doomed to repeating the mistakes of the past.     The term is a play on “organizational memory” which is defined as is the accumulated body of data, information, and informal learning created in the course of an organization’s existence or known as “Knowledge Management.”    There are two repositories: an organization archives – reports, data, and documented knowledge which is more and more in electronic format and individuals’ memories (if they are still working for the organization.)  Unfortunately, organizational memory is short, and without a way to capture knowledge and  learning, they become lost.

I found a blog post called “The Dangers of Organizational Amnesia” by Darcy Jacobson.  She points a few trends making our individual AND organizational memories shorter. “It is ironic that technology has provided us with phenomenal tools for communication and connection, but much of it has also sped up our work lives and made knowledge and memory at work much more ephemeral. Add to that higher rates of turnover and more mobility in organizations—particularly among younger workers. We find that there are fewer and fewer curators of “tribal knowledge” and more and more of our knowledge capital is at risk of slipping through the cracks.”

She references a paper from 2001 why organizational memory is important from Dr. Jeff Conklin from the CogNexus Institute and describes organizational memory into two types: formal and informal knowledge.  The former refers to things like manuals and documents, which he points out we tend to preserve very well.  But informal knowledge is the information we learn when we create that formal knowledge and is not always captured.    This idea and practice is further described in a paper and MIT study that asks “Are You Feeding or Starving Organizational Memory?

According to that study there are two important pieces to relationship-based memory that can be captured:

  1. Social capital: Time spent interacting on work tasks establishes a sense of reciprocity and trust among colleagues. This social capital encourages employees to turn to colleagues to get useful assistance or advice about future initiatives.
  2. Knowledge mapping: By working closely together, colleagues build an understanding of each person’s particular knowledge and skills. This understanding allows employees to seek out the right peers for information in the future.

My colleague, Eugene Eric Kim recently wrote a wonderful mini-rant, “Documenting Isn’t Learning.”  Documentation and learning are the treatment for organizational amnesia. He makes the point:

“Today, too many of us are fixated on digitally capturing our knowledge. That is the wrong place to start. We shouldn’t be so focused on externalizing what’s in our head in digital form. We should be looking at the problem the other way around — figuring out how best to get knowledge into our heads. That is the much more challenging and important problem.

How do we do that?

The number one thing we can do to help groups learn is to create space and time for reflection. How many of you take the time to do that with your groups?”

He went on to ask a provocative question, “What if, instead of spending so much time, energy, and money on trying to get people to share more information digitally, we assigned people learning buddies? What if we incentivised time spent in reflection and with each other?  What if we created systems for shadowing each other and for practicing the skills we need to be effective?  Wouldn’t those be better first steps toward facilitating effective group learning? ” Dave Gray called Eugene out to say that “The process of documenting is one of the most powerful ways of catalyzing learning.”  In response, Eugene set up a Google Hangout to discuss the question of learning today at 12:30 PST.

Accountability Buddies

This is one of the points of serendipity because during the workshop I did on using content curation for professional learning, Jen Bokoff shared the tip of having an “accountability buddy” – a trusted colleague who she checks in on about what they will accomplish each day or week. Would be easy to also add learning to this as well.

We also discussed ways that individuals could carve out time for more reflection or do what Eugene is suggesting above – to get more knowledge into our heads. Finding the time to reflect and learn is hard – and digital information isn’t the only challenge. One participant shared that it is difficult to work in open office spaces and they are trying the above cards to help minimize physical distractions. During the session, participants discuss some ways they plan to get more focus:

  • Don’t use mobile phone as an alarm clock to avoid checking e-mail or social first thing in the morning or last thing before sleep
  • Incorporate more movement into the day
  • Separate the “seeking and sharing” of digital information from the sense-making piece


During the keynote Q/A, there were many questions related to an organization’s social media policy and all staff participation and of course related to legal compliance. Although some questions can’t easily be answered with compliance or written policy as this recent presentation from the Nonprofit Technology Conference called “50 Shades of Social Media” by Debra Askansae, Farra Trompeter, Ashley Lusk, and Carly Leinheiser points out.

Finally, my colleague, Nathaniel James of PhilanthroGeek did an excellent session on social giving and philanthropy.


8 Responses

  1. Beth this is great. Thank you for stirring the pot.
    Just to make sure Eugene does not think that I’m reducing learning to capturing information and data in documents and databases (good luck with that!), I’d like to offer the concept of “learning as a habit” as reflected in the quote below that was recently published in this report ( written by Anna Williams and published by the Center for Evaluation Innovation. The quote goes:

    “ A lot about learning can’t be taught. It can’t be reduced to tools and frameworks, even if these can help. The important thing is to build a culture that drives people to learn from their work every day—that’s what will get you where you need to go.” Roberto

  2. Beth says:

    Roberto – thank you for that! Love it. We had a great time today on the hangout and playing with Dave Gray’s “Board Thing” — I think Eugene will write up some reflections …

  3. Roberto, I would never think that of you. 🙂 But I love the framing of “learning as habit,” and I’m looking forward to diving into that report!

    Beth, as always, you are so wonderful at weaving many different threads together into something that is not just coherent, but is likely going to result in some powerful shifts. I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges! It was also fun to see you mention Jeff Conklin’s work. He’s one of my mentors and a great friend!

    Here are some thoughts on the followup conversation I had with Dave yesterday:

  4. […] March was the “Iron Woman Multi-Conferencethon” for me and I’m just catching up.  […]

  5. Danette Peteres says:

    Beth and Roberto,

    I cannot thank you both enough for being a part of the Grant Managers Network Conference this year. It was an amazing learning opportunity and I am honored to have been a part of it. I wanted to share a link to the document explaining “Network Officers” and the role they play in capacity building and networks.

  6. Beth says:


    Thanks for stopping by and always love learning from you. I have a blog post in draft that I hope to post next week about our discussion about Artifacts of Learning ..

  7. Susan Clark says:

    It was great to have you there, Beth, sparking these great conversations. Now, off to collect and share knowledge…

  8. Brian Wilson says:

    it was the great experinece on Iron Woman Multi-Conferencethon and i learned many thing from it.

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