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4 Forms of Organizational Forgetting

Organizations have, in recent times, become more aware of the worth of regulating their Organizational Knowledge.  Extensive studies in academia have been conducted on the subject, because of its importance.

Organizations learn with time and experience.  The cause-and-effect relationship is gathered in the collective memory of the organization in the form of:

  • Shared mental models
  • Standard operating procedures
  • Rules and routines
  • Assets

This learning, in some cases, becomes a source of Competitive Advantage for the organization.

New learning, in organizations, is possible when redundant knowledge and bad habits are effectively erased from the organizational memory.  Managing Organizational Forgetting has to be part of Strategic Planning because of:

  1. Wasted resources—Knowledge forgotten, that should not have been, has to be re-acquired by diverting resources that could have been used elsewhere or for acquiring new knowledge.
  2. Opportunity cost—Required knowledge not available (because it was forgotten) at the time an opportunity arose.

Effective Organizational Forgetting should be an Organizational Culture so as to keep organizations on their toes and maybe preserve or gain Competitive Advantage.

Organizations that intend to manage their Organizational Forgetting effectively, need to comprehend 2 dimensions of Forgetting and the relationship between them:

Dimension 1:  Accidental Forgetting vs. Intentional Forgetting

The 1st element pertains to loss of valuable knowledge; the 2nd to increased competitiveness as a result of Forgetting.

Dimension 2: Entrenched Knowledge vs. New Knowledge

The 1st element relates to knowledge embedded in relatively durable objects like machines, databases, taken-for-granted routines; the 2nd to a transient setup like individual minds, association among small teams, makeshift organizational groups.

The process of Forgetting is altered depending on the interaction of the elements of the 2 dimensions.

Interaction of the above 2 dimensions results in 4 processes that constitute the Forms of Organizational Forgetting:

  1. Memory Decay
  2. Failure to Capture
  3. Unlearning
  4. Avoiding Bad Habits

The interaction of the 4 processes has been conveyed in the form of a matrix dubbed the Organizational Forgetting Matrix.  These processes explain an array of Organizational Forgetting that may occur.  Each of the 4 processes need distinct management approaches because each process is connected with a disparate set of challenges.

Let us delve a little deeper into some of the processes.

Memory Decay

Memory Decay occurs when concepts, practices, values are lost because of non-use or key personnel leaving the organization.  Organizations can forget elements long ingrained in their collective memory triggering costly and harmful consequences, like spending large sums to regain knowledge that was a source of Competitive Advantage.

Memory Decay is exacerbated in the process of downsizing.  Extremely valuable pieces of knowledge and skills can be lost if proper retention measures are not put in place.

Failure to Capture

Failure to capture new knowledge and disseminate it throughout the organization, results in loss when individuals bearing that knowledge leave.  Knowledge Articulation and Knowledge Institutionalization are 2 processes that can prevent such loss. 

Unlearning

Intentional Forgetting enhances organizational capability.  Intentional Forgetting can be achieved in 2 ways.  The 1st is strategic removal of knowledge.

Interested in learning more about Organizational Forgetting?  You can download an editable PowerPoint on Organizational Forgetting here on the Flevy documents marketplace.

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About Mark Bridges

Mark Bridges is a Senior Director of Strategy at Flevy. Flevy is your go-to resource for best practices in business management, covering management topics from Strategic Planning to Operational Excellence to Digital Transformation (view full list here). Learn how the Fortune 100 and global consulting firms do it. Improve the growth and efficiency of your organization by leveraging Flevy's library of best practice methodologies and templates. Prior to Flevy, Mark worked as an Associate at McKinsey & Co. and holds an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. You can connect with Mark on LinkedIn here.

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