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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Garden Paths and Organizational Memory

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“How fair is a garden amid the toils and passions of existence”.

Benjamin Disraeli

Dick Cavett the TV talk show host from the 70’s has been writing a column for the NY Times recently. In one of his columns Dick described an incident where a guest died during the taping of one of his shows. The guest, a health food expert, died in front of the cameras but because the show was taped the episode never aired. Yet Mr. Cavett indicates that about 20 times per year he has a conversation that goes something like this: (from his article)

““Hey, Dick, I’ll never forget the look on your face when that guy died on your show.”

I’m never sure exactly how to answer. Let’s call the speaker Don. Usually it goes on:

Don: I’ll never forget that.

D.C.: Ah, you were in the audience?

Don: No, I saw it.

D.C. (uneasy): Well, you see that show never aired.

Don: C’mon, you’re kiddin’ me.

D.C.: It’s true. And you’re just one of a lot of people who are so sure that they saw it that they could pass a polygraph test.

Don: How did I see it then?

D.C.: I hate to spoil your fun, but the only way you might have seen it is if you knew a couple of ABC engineers who ran off a copy that night to take home to spook their wives and girlfriends.

Don (with an expression that says, “Why are you pretending I didn’t see it?”): But I just know I saw it.

D.C. (now trying to comfort poor Don who has had a cherished memory threatened): Maybe I described it so vividly the next night that you thought you actually saw it … and it was in all the papers and on the late news shows.”

What do we remember and why? How accurate are our recollections? Saying that human memory is a very complicated thing makes me guilty of gross understatement. One aspect of the ability to recall a memory is thought to be related to the number of cross references to that memory that exists within your brain. If you think of the brain as a vast filing system with hyperlinks, the more locations where you can come across a hyperlink directing you to where more information can be found about a memory the easier it is to recall that memory in detail. If a memory is isolated with no or few cross references it is more difficult to recall. Other senses can help evoke memory recall as well, as part of that cross reference system. A certain smell, taste or a touch of a familiar object for instance can trigger vivid recall of an incident from long ago. (If only organizations could get you to smell their freshness and touch their innovativeness, it would be easier and more likely that you would recall those characteristics when thinking of them). And if you think of the brain as a muscle, regular mental exercise, it has been shown, can help it work better.      

How do organizations remember things? Is there such a thing as organizational memory stored in the organizational brain? What mental exercises can an organization do to keep its brain and its memories sharp, preventing them from fading into oblivion? If we think of the individual people within the organization as neurons, then the collective group of individuals within the organization is the brain. The sum total of knowledge, skills and ability that these individuals possess represent the organization’s knowledge and its memory. The organization on its own, stripped of its neurons has no innate ability, it only has a frame in which its component parts can exist. The employees of an organization, who breathe life into the organization also represent the logic, feelings and emotions of the organization and organizational surveys can be thought of as a tool or a sensory organ allowing us to see inside, just as an MRI does for human brains, the intricate organizational brain. Surveys give us only one view however, just as our eyes can see visible light but are blind to other wave lengths in the electromagnetic spectrum. Unfortunately some of the things that our eyes can’t see, such as radiation or an untrustworthy executive out for only personal gain, can kill you.

Some areas of our brain and our organizations have specialized functions that if damaged, can be taken over by other areas of the brain over time, and some if damaged beyond repair represent simply lost functionality. 

Organizations work very hard at helping customers remember them – branding is very important for an organization that is trying to be easily remembered. But what about things the organization itself needs to remember. Things like who it is, what it stands for, what principles will guide it, how it will operate and how it will treat employees? Internal branding can go a long way towards helping the organizational members remember what the organization is about and how it should operate. But can organizations have faulty memories, like the people who are so sure they saw that person die on Dick Cavett, or is that just faulty perceptional organs?  

One way to help the organizational members more easily remember is to cross reference, the same process that our brain uses. In this case what we are cross referencing are all of the policies and practices that the organization has stated it will operate under and making sure that they all match up with the stated internal brand. The more that polices and practices, each and every one of them, are congruent with stated objectives, the more cross references exist. This organization stands for safety or quality or customer service and if that is the case, to help the organization remember that, all of the policies and practices need to be aligned to allow the employees to perform in a quality fashion, or safely, or in a customer focused fashion congruent to those objectives. Many organizations will state one thing and then by its practices, send a different message to employees, destroying its ability to have an organizational memory.

One finding that I find somewhat remarkable in survey research is how consistent some organizational cultures can be, even organizations that are experiencing more than 100% turnover per year. How can it be that in organizations where essentially every year there is 100% turnover that the culture remains consistent? First of all there is the error in how the turnover is measured. In these organizations there is not 100% turnover, representing a change out of all staff, but rather there may be 200 or more percent turnover among certain job categories (maybe an entry level position), and other categories such as management may have much lower turnover providing a source of cultural consistency for the organization. Second there is the organizational framework, the strategies, polices and practices that the organization adopts. For instance, an organization that is a low-wage paying organization, paying well below market, does not all of a sudden change it’s pay strategy because of turnover (although if the pain of losing good people, defined as the opportunity cost of turnover becoming greater than the perceived benefit of low wages, it may reconsider its strategy).  Given that the framework is consistent and in place for a low wage environment the next set of employees entering the organization experience the same culture as the ones that just left. And given what we know about people being people they will eventually make the same decisions as those who came before them if subjected to the same environment (if external environmental factors are held constant).

So far it seems that organizational memory is a combination of the strategies, polices and practices that the organization adopts as well as the collective memory of those living within the organization. There is at least one more component to organizational memory that differentiates an average organization from the truly exceptional one and that is what leads us down the Garden Path.

“Gardening requires lots of water — most of it in the form of perspiration”.

Lou Erickson

The best garden paths are ones that contain pleasant experiences around each gentle curve. You wander  down a pleasant path, looking at plantings on both sides and then upon rounding a bend you find yourself in a spot that contains a unique flowering bush, a welcoming bench or a enchanting piece of art, it is even better if those experiences occur in the most unexpected of places. While it might seem like an aesthetic piece of art, dependent on the skill of a talented artist, the formula for determining what makes for a pleasant garden path is a well known quantity, and it is not too difficult if you know the formula and know how to apply it in differing circumstances (even I have been known to create an interesting pathway every now and again).  The formula for knowledge capture within organizations may feel as elusive to some as the techniques for designing garden paths, but just like garden paths it is possible to apply technique to knowledge capture as well.

Smaller, fast growing organizations tend to rely on individuals with expert information in order to accomplish their tasks. “How do you do this? So and so in department zebra knows how to do that, see them”. But what happens when that person in department zebra is no longer there? That knowledge, that piece of organizational memory might be forever lost.  Systematic knowledge capture and the accessibility of that knowledge to others in the organization is one critical component of organizational memory, if an organization wants to prosper and grow. It is the difference between going to the local bakery, where the proprietor can make wonderful donuts, 12 at a time in one location, and rolling out a Dunkin Donuts chain world-wide.

Yet too often this systematic collection of information also results in more mass produced mediocre products and for the sake of expediency and often profit the enchanting garden pathway becomes a straight concrete walkway though a grass lawn. (The internal logic going on might be, “It is easier to take care of, lasts longer, costs less to build and has a host of other wonderful qualities”.) And consumers, both end users and business to business often look at this end state and are unhappy. How did that artesian bread that was so wonderful turn into that mass produced loaf of fluffy air with no real taste (but fortified with essential vitamins and minerals)? 

Organizations have choices to make and the hard work associated with the systematic retention and dissemination of knowledge, memories is one of those choices. As organizations grow and prosper it is necessary for the organization to systematize this process if it is to survive. However during the systematization of the process care must be taken not to lose the site of what made the garden pathway of interest in the first place. Your customers want do deal with an organization that seems tailored to and anticipates their individual needs, yielding pleasant experiences as they round that gentle curve setting their eyes on that wonderful piece of sculpture you put there knowing that they will be walking down that path. Your delighted customer will come back and visit the garden often.  

“Too old to plant trees for my own gratification, I shall do it for my posterity”.

Thomas Jefferson

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 22, 2009 at 10:40 am

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