Remembering: The missing capacity

I wrote this many years ago early in my consulting career. As yet unpublished.


Think about the organization you work for now. How did it begin? What was the original vision? What are the milestone events in its history? How many people have worked for or with your organization since it started? Where are those people today? Where would I find a complete set of annual reports or the minutes to the Steering Committee meeting from two years ago? And what is the value in asking these questions?


Few organizations think of their history as a resource. Keeping track of the people who have worked with you and for you is your network of friends and allies. Sending them your newsletter or a New Year’s greeting is the mechanism that keeps your mailing list up to date and helps those people remember you. I once met a government officer who attended a river ecology workshop ten years ago. He still gets the institute’s newsletter. He’s impressed that they continue to remember him and if they ever need a friend in the region, you can be sure he would do everything possible to help them.


In the process of helping one organization with its records management, I discovered that the country they work in once had a National Environment Committee. The people who were junior officers then are Director Generals and Vice-Ministers now. Unfortunately, no one currently working in this organization remembered any such committee or the connection they once had with these well-placed people. Universities have alumnae associations, why not development organizations?


Only a few of the organizations I have worked with take good care of their documents. Most organizations know they have to keep financial records for five years and everyone has a document centre and a simple filing system of some sort. I know they exist, but I have yet to work with an organization that has a systematic records management policy that gives people clear directions on what to do with any document that comes across their desk: where to file it, how long to keep it in the active files, what to do with it after one year, two years, ten years.


This is especially important if your organization has a high staff turnover or uses a lot of short-term consultants. Every time a staff member or consultant leaves a job, they tend to leave behind stacks of books and papers. Without a good records management system, the next person to occupy that workspace has no direction or authority to do anything with that stack and just pushes it into a corner out of the way. I have seen stacks like this a meter high, usually next to a row of half empty filing cabinets. You can’t throw the whole stack out without sorting through every item because you don’t know what might be in there: an unfiled consultant’s report you paid thousands of dollars for; minutes from a meeting where important decisions were made; photographs that would be just right for the next annual report or some other unexpected treasure like the last known copy of your lease agreement. These examples are not made up, they are things I have actually found in these abandoned stacks.


Every activity an organization undertakes has a history. Every activity has a starting point when it was first thought of and a record of discussions. Perhaps several different people or groups of people have worked on this activity over time. Consultants were hired to advise, outside agencies were contacted, letters and emails exchanged, MoUs drafted and signed. Along the way, problems were encountered then overcome. During implementation, some things worked, some didn’t. How many organizations could quickly call up a record of all that? Why would they want to?


First, people are going to feel much more confident going into situations when they know ‘the whole story’. It was my task on one assignment to help organize a series of national and regional workshops for a team of consultants who were formulating guidelines for Environmental Impact Assessment that could be agreed to and adopted by four countries. Early on in the process, I wondered if anything like this had been done before. Fortunately, this organization does have a good document centre and we were able to quickly write up a ‘project history’ that went back to 1982. People were amazed that so much past effort had gone into this project. It added a whole new dimension to the project by giving it an historical context and it raised useful questions. What became of the guidelines drafted in 1982? Where were the people who had taken the environmental management training in 1992? Were any of them here today? I try to persuade managers they would get more ‘value for money’ from their consultants if they provided histories like this before consultants arrived. I also believe that consultants and staff would get more satisfaction from their work if they felt they were contributing to something with a history rather than just a two or three month project.


Organizations ‘forget’ and things go missing because the capacity to remember is seldom externalized. Every organization has its ‘old hands’ who can remember everything and have bookcases and filing cabinets and boxes full of documents and photographs that go back years. All you have to do is ask. That works as long as that person is with you and as long as they are willing to share all that information. In large organizations, it works as long as everyone knows who that person is.


I worked with one organization that has a headquarters staff of over 100. Of those 100 people, only five had been with the organization longer than seven years. Hardly anyone else in the organization knew who those five were. A lot of time and effort is spent by ‘new’ people rediscovering (or reinventing) the past when so much of it is just across the hall.


Supposing you are now convinced of the value of the past, where do you begin? A good records management system is the basis for externalizing organizational memory. Oxfam publishes a helpful ‘starter’ guide called ‘Information Management for Development Organizations’. If you are looking for more advanced information, try the new ISO 15489 Information and Documentation – Records Management or the UN Global Filing Classification System. Aid Workers Network ( has a good collection of links or just type ‘records management’ into an Internet search engine and stand back while the information pours in. Do not start with computer software and do not start before you have done a proper systems analysis of your work flow and peoples’ needs. No matter what state your records may be in today, it’s never too late to start.


Keeping your documents in good order is a necessary foundation but it will take more than this to create a sense of ‘living history’ in your organization. A good photo collection is essential. You must establish the habit for everyone in your organization to record the basic ‘who, what, where, when, and why’ details for the pictures they take. Without this information, even the most beautifully composed or important photographs are useless for publication or display. Also consider a one-day workshop with a professional photographer on ‘how to take good pictures’. You will be amazed at how much more value you get from all the money you spend on digital cameras.


Photographs are not much use if they aren’t displayed. Every organization I work with has bulletin boards with snapshots of recent events but I have yet to see a good permanent display that portrays a history of the organization itself. Imagine the impact that would have on people walking into your offices for the first time. Start writing your ‘corporate history’. With the help of the agency’s public relations officer, I once managed to capture 50 years of history in three pages of text. The ‘outputs’ (a web site section and a three-panel theme brochure) are valuable communication tools in themselves, but the process of telling the story was equally important. It helped us identify a list of milestone events, a collection of key historical documents and photographs, significant gaps in documentation and themes for a series of informative exhibits.


Most of us are so busy keeping up with day-to-day events and planning the future that we have no time to keep track of the past. This is unfortunate because an organization that cannot remember its past has a poor foundation on which to build its future. With a few simple systems and some slight changes in habitual procedures, most organizations could take better advantage of this enormous resource with little additional effort.