Are we destined to always forget what we already know?

Author – Steve Dale, BIR Editorial Board

I wonder what next in the Windrush saga that has been played out in the media these past few weeks? Have we reached the final page of the last chapter now that Amber Rudd has resigned and the new broom in the form of Sajid Javid takes up the reigns as our next Home Secretary? He clearly sees a need for change, having warned the Home Office to expect an overhaul as he ditches the policy of creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants and seeks to break free from Theresa May’s legacy.

But before I lose some readers who may be thinking they’ve stumbled across an editorial in the Guardian, rest assured that I don’t intend to write a political commentary on Windrush. My background is in knowledge and information management, and I think it is worth a closer look at what has played out in the Windrush saga through that particular lense.

The Home Office has long had a reputation as a “political graveyard” for ministers, and though one might argue that Mrs Rudd did not have had full control of her department, there is some evidence of basic failings in the Home Office’s administrative capabilities.

Tony Smith, a former director general of the UK Border Force has been quoted as saying:

”What has gone wrong is that a lot of the corporate memory and experience has been lost with the abolition of the immigration service and the UK Border Agency in the 2000s. Now ten years on there are quite junior caseworkers taking decisions who probably have not got much experience of the broader immigration system. They have little discretion to use their nous and common sense when faced with people without documentation”. [1]

This appears to be borne out by the ‘tick-box culture’ that pervades many government departments, where rules and instructions replace discretion and experience. It’s also a solution to lack of training and inadequate (or non-existent) knowledge transfer procedures, which are particularly important in an aging workforce or where there is a high turnover of staff.  Continuity of knowledge and experience, supported by effective and resilient information management systems are the essential components of maintaining a good corporate memory.

But what do we mean by ‘corporate memory’?

Corporate memory is the ability of an organisation to retain information to improve strategy, decision making, problem solving, operations and design. An organisation with low corporate memory is doomed to repeat the same mistakes and reinvent things repeatedly in a costly loop. The following are the basic components of corporate memory:-

  • The abilities and knowledge of employees. Knowledge that isn’t transferred or retained, such as tacit knowledge and situational knowledge, can be lost when people leave the organisation.
  • Data designed to be consumed by people. For example, a policy document or a training video. It is common for knowledge workers to produce copious amounts of documentation that is archived in a tool such as a knowledge management platform. It is also common for such information to go to waste or for similar documentation efforts to be repeated many times.
  • Information designed to be consumed by machine. Automation and decision support based on databases is a type of corporate memory that survives employee turnover. In some cases, replacing systems and changing processes results in data ‘going dark’.
  • Organisational Culture.The norms, habits and expectations of an organisation. As with the culture of a nation, this is rooted in history and serves as a stabilising force that doesn’t easily change.

It is probable that the Home Office is no worse (or better) than any other government department in maintaining an accurate corporate memory, but the Windrush scandal has briefly shone the spotlight in their direction, exposing some cultural and administrative issues. Readers of this post can no doubt think of many other examples, in government or their own organisations where mistakes have been repeated and lessons have not been learnt. But before we cast the shadow of blame on individual workers, it is worth reflecting on whether the underlying culture and values of the organisation have recognised the importance of corporate memory, and have invested in the policies, procedures and resources that will maintain corporate memory for future generations.

If not, we are indeed destined to forget what we already know!

Footnote

Background to Wind-rush

The arrival records of tens of thousands of Windrush generation immigrants, which dated back to the 1950s and 60s, were destroyed by the Home Office in 2010.  A person’s arrival date is crucial to citizenship application because the 1971 Immigration Act gave people who had already moved to Britain indefinite leave to remain. After the destruction of the archive, when an individual requested confirmation of an arrival date, Home Office staff advised there was no record of it.Immigration lawyers have repeatedly criticised the Home Office’s insistence that it is up to individuals to provide copious evidence proving their right to be in the UK. They have argued that If UK officials had kept a record of everyone granted indefinite leave to remain, the problem would never have arisen.

“Business archives are an essential part of our national story. Used wisely, the corporate memory can inspire, inform and innovate in today’s business.” Natalie Ceeney, ex-Chief Executive, The National Archives.

[1]The Times, Saturday 21stApril 2018.

Leave a Reply