The cure for institutional amnesia?

step by stepBack in January King’s published Step by Step: arts policy and young people 1944-2014 – a report into the history of policy relating to young people and culture. One of the key findings was that policymakers have a real difficulty in retaining and respecting institutional memory (the facts, experiences and protocols that should inform organisational practice which are held in records and people’s minds).

The Clore Leadership Programme has an intensive year-long suite of training, coaching and placements for their Fellowship: people identified as future leaders in the cultural sectors. Over the summer King’s set a group of Clore Fellows the challenge of coming up with suggestions for how cultural organisations can better retain and exploit institutional memory.

Here are their findings:

Approaching the challenge

We approached our discussions by thinking about people. It doesn’t matter how great your systems are, if the people administering the systems don’t utilise them effectively they will never be a success. We focused on the human dimension to institutional memory. Viewing organisations as networks of people and the relationships between them, we explored the subjective nature of individual memory and how that plays out.

We devised a workshop for other Clore Fellows to explore how memory works and how it is expressed. The workshop comprised four creative tasks: curating a display using modelling clay; making a map; devising a recipe and writing a fable.

Reflecting on how these tasks unfolded: there were high levels of subjectivity in how memories were processed and expressed. There was some power play and challenging group dynamics within the workshop teams. For example, there were times when those with more dominant personalities directed their groups while others withdrew. All the groups decided to somehow change the format of their final presentation, seeing ‘flexibility’ in the initial brief and taking the opportunity to shape it to their own purposes.

The workshop, along with our own research and discussions, led us to make the following recommendations to cultural organisations:

Recognise and address human biases

Training in how to recognise and remain self-aware of cognitive biases would go a long way in improving the quality of institutional memory and decision-making in cultural organisations. How much fairer and more balanced might our institutional memory be, if we were to become more aware of common mistakes in human perception?

Value qualitative alongside the quantitative

There is great value in using qualitative as well as quantitative evaluation tools in developing a more people-centered approach to institutional memory. How can we create a flexible approach to recording memory that empowers people across an organisation, whilst also having a framework to ensure future relevance and usability of the data?

Archivist as facilitative leader

Organisations could gain significantly more value from these ‘memory specialists’ if the archivist’s role shifted to facilitating and supporting an approach to collecting, recovering and using institutional memory that involved every member of the organisation. The archivist could then take on a more explicit leadership role. Recognising that many organisations don’t have an in-house archivist, could there be a role for freelance archivists to train individuals within organisations?

Remember together – ritualise shared memory

What are the moments when organisations remember together? For example, could a debrief from a major project provide such an opportunity? When a member of staff is leaving, apart from formal handover, are there other opportunities that might be created to capture important information and experience?

Remember failure and success

There is a tendency for individuals and organisations to highlight successes in order to be seen in a positive light. At the same time, past successes can be easily forgotten when new leaders attempt to stamp their mark on an organisation. Cultural organisations must take a balanced approach to remembering, and learn from both successes and failures.

Other recommendations from Clore Fellows for effectively retaining institutional memory were:

Deal with subjectivity

  • To build a full and varied account, collect stories and personal accounts from a variety of people and perspectives – not the usual suspects. Don’t just count information, data and processes – listen to subjective experiences.
  • Stay in dialogue with people who have worked with your organisation in the past.

Succession planning

  • Have outgoing staff be on call to continue sharing experiences and learning. Reinvent the ‘exit interview’ to capture memories as well as experiences
  • Find collaborative systems so information sharing is a shared activity, and shared responsibility.
  • Have ‘old timers’ in the organisation tell their stories of what the organization was like when they came in.
  • Strike a balance: let newcomers have a sense of ownership whilst avoiding same mistakes.

Records management

  • Establish collective responsibility for creating and preserving the information that becomes institutional memory – include emotions as well as knowledge.
  • Keep a record of all the things big and small that shaped your learning experience of your organisation.
  • Recall failures, not just successes. Document the good, the bad and the ugly, highlighting what should be learnt.
  • Use your archives and archivists.
  • Learn the story of your organisation, try to catch as much detail as you can. Make sure you contribute to this story.
  • If you collect testimony/memories/oral history think about why and how they benefit the organisation, but without reducing the freedom of the contributors.
  • Write the story of your organisation. Make a mythology.


  • Don’t always follow the same path as the one before. But take into account what didn’t work before and honour what was successful and well received.
  • Organisations introduced with a story are the most memorable.
  • Leaders must have the generosity to share knowledge and power.

By Laura Wilkinson, Emma Ridgway, Dan Simmons, Claudia Castro and Jeanette Burnett