A terrible thing to waste

Human progress is dependent on institutional memory. Before the advent of the written word, we used stories to share history so that it would not be forgotten. Then came tablets, papyrus, the printing press, the Xerox machine, email and the encyclopedic knowledge of Twitter, doled out 140 characters at a time. We can now communicate in ways that our ancestors would find unimaginable
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With today's level of communication, there is no excuse for loss of knowledge. Image: Wikicommons

It is ironic then that, at a time when business has never had as many ways to remember, our collective amnesia has never been worse. That this is particularly prevalent in innovation, a practice dedicated to doing things in new ways is sad, as the loss of institutional history is condemning us to repeat it.

This past week I met with a senior executive in strategy and innovation at a mining company with whom we have worked for years. I led one of their major innovation programmes, ala ‘Mine of the Future', which, like so many innovation programmes in the last down-cycle, was stopped mid-stream. In addition to shelving the work, the group charged with it was disbanded and each member left the company for new pastures. The executive asked if we would help with their new innovation programme. "Of course" I replied, "are you aware that we've done this work before?" He was not, and we sent him details, hoping it would accelerate efforts and save time.

This is not unusual. As mining companies restart their innovation, transformation and strategic growth initiatives, they are finding themselves unknowingly re-doing work because of a loss of continuity. It's also not a new phenomenon; we have all heard of previous remote and robotic mining efforts stopped and forgotten about thanks to a previous down-cycle.

And this is not a challenge exclusive to mining. These conversations mirror many we find when starting new growth strategy or innovation programmes at companies ranging from chemicals to banking. Often, work has been done before but has fallen by the wayside when markets shifted.

For example, Margaret Heffernan, author of "Willful Blindness", points out in her book that the 2010 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig can be directly attributable to failure to retain institutional knowledge.

As the mining industry enters a new period of rising commodity prices there is little thought of the next downturn, let alone what will happen to all the digital transformation programmes that are underway. After all, ‘digital is the future' and there is ‘no turning back'. However, it is worth asking what would happen if a downturn hit tomorrow? Chances are most of these projects would come to a grinding halt.

Companies undergoing transformational work should prepare for this scenario and ask the question "how will the value within these projects survive if they are shut down tomorrow?" By doing so, efforts can be put in place to capture, disseminate and store the knowledge in a way that creates institutional memory that survives tenures, stoppages and cycles.

As Georges Santanaya, a philosopher said in 1905: "Progress, far from consisting of change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Hemingway is a partner and head of the innovation practice for Stratalis, a growth strategy and innovation consultancy focused on helping leading organisations to think through the future and outperform in uncertain markets. Contact him at George.hemingway@stratalisgroup.com or Twitter: @GeorgeStratalis