Organizational memory

Organizations that have moderate to high turn-over among its members, such as McDonalds and other low-wage workplaces and voluntary associations, face a challenge. They must pass down knowledge that often is taken-for-granted (e.g., tacit memory about the correct sequence of, say, placing hamburgers on a grill or the proper steps for pulling together a meeting) to new members. Typically, organizations use routines, orientations and trainings, handbooks, and record-keeping to orient and acclimate new members. But what happens if these structures are not in place? The lack of such structures may be symptomatic of under-organizing’s insufficient structure or coordination.

For the Burning Man organization, such underorganizing was glaringly evident when key persons departed suddenly, forcing remaining and new members to re-establish departments from scratch.  For instance, operations for the Gate, or the entrance to the Burning Man event, had to be recreated after a key leader left without leaving records of how to run the collection of tickets. At one point, I realized that as a researcher who had observed organizing activities over the years, I was a source of tacit organizational memory for others.  I was the one who reminded a volunteer manager that pamphlets had to go to the Gate for distribution to incoming participants; at times, I shared a version of my field notes for those who wanted a record of meeting activities.

In subsequent years, Burning Man organizers have introduced ways of sharing knowledge among members via volunteer mixers, departmental handbooks, record-keeping, and teamwork.  These changes have since smoothed over transitions as members depart or join.  Undoubtedly, not all knowledge passes down, which suggests the potential for re-invention or innovation.

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