Are you optimising your media company’s institutional memory?

If you want the water cooler in the newsroom to yourself, mention institutional memory. It makes people uncomfortable, especially in organisations that went through several rounds of restructuring – like most traditional media companies did in the past few years.

In his article on “institutional amnesia,” Christopher Pollitt identifies “constant restructuring” as one of the reasons for memory loss in institutions. The other reasons are just as applicable to newsrooms: poorly managed electronic archiving, the decline of the concept of a permanent career (the move from specialists to generalists), and the popularity of ideas of radical change.

It might be an uncomfortable subject, but leaders in newsrooms can use institutional memory as a tool for change management, decision making, and brand building.

By deliberately engaging with more experienced colleagues, you get a better understanding of the history and background of your organisation and important relationships both internal and external. If you understand the history, it will be easier to navigate the future.

Institutional memory is of special value to those newly appointed in leadership positions. “What are you going to change?” is one of the first questions posed to a new incumbent. If your appointment is not part of a turnaround strategy, restrain from barging into your new role with a list of things to implement in the first week.

Take your time to establish where your company is and how it got there before you try to figure out where to take it. Do this by asking a lot of questions, especially: “Why did we … ?”

Ask this not to confront or to blame, but to understand. This will help you frame your vision, and it will forge relationships with some of the most valuable and influential people in your company – those with institutional memory. They will not only inform your decisions, but once you decide to change something, they will become your change agents.

At a digital initiative summit, hosted by the Harvard Business School (HBS) earlier this year, Michael Maness touched on the importance of institutional memory. Maness, innovator-in-residence at HBS, identifies “energisers” as the best change agents in your company. He says they have three key attributes: They talk to you “as if you are a real person, they are always on time, and they have institutional memory.”

Why do we – especially as newly appointed leaders – shy away from asking our predecessors for advice? Are we afraid they will think we are incompetent? Or are we too ego driven? Asking questions is what a journalist does for a living. Why do we stop doing it once we’ve reached the corner office?

Ask for advice. You don’t have to follow it, but in the answer you might find contextual information that will enrich the decision-making process. By asking questions, you will get answers you can’t find in the archives. You will get insight into off-the-record meetings and gain a better understanding of company and office politics, which will enable you to navigate your relationships and your career.

Don’t limit the search for institutional memory to colleagues. Reach out to your readers and advertisers. Sometimes they know your company better than you do. You may know the organisational structure, but they have experience of the organisational culture. Invite them to participate in discovery conversations, and grab the opportunity to look at your product and your team from another (very important) perspective.

Ask questions, not to defend or to debate, but to understand. This will allow you to build strong relationships with an important part of your community, and, in the process, you will gain loyal brand ambassadors.

About Johanna van Eeden

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