Organizational Memory
(Walsh Ungson)

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Information retention, acquisition, and retrieval in an organization. Explanation of Organizational Memory of Walsh and Ungson. ('91)

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Organizational Memory (Walsh, Ungson)

What is Organizational Memory? Description

The Organizational Memory method from Walsh and Ungson is a technique that can be used for information retention, acquisition, and retrieval in an organization.

Walsh and Ungson suggest that the structure of organizational memory can be classified within six information "storage bins":

  • Individuals,
  • Culture (stories, mental models),
  • Transformations (the various processes and procedures),
  • Structures (roles within the organization),
  • Ecology (physical setting of the organization), and
  • External archives (information documentation).

Organizational memory refers to stored information from an organization that can be used for current decisions. It is not centrally stored, but distributed across different facilities where it is retained.
The model helps HRM managers to improve an organization's chances to exploit better its memory potential, by shaping and influencing these memory locations.

Origin of Organizational Memory. History

There are several modern scholars who publish work regarding organizational memory. But it is clear that the origins of this concept are based upon the work of early twentieth-century scholars such as Durkheim and Vygotsky. According to Wexler (2002), the notion of organizational memory originates from the work of Durkheim and his protégé and was built upon the concept of collective memory. Spender (1996) claims that organizational memory is inextricably linked to the work of Vygotsky and social construction theory. He offers the argument that socially embedded activity preceded the development of individual consciousness (p. 71). Walsh and Ungson (1991) cite the work of March and Simon (1958), who posit that the memory of an organization or institution can be housed in policies and procedures. This retention characteristic can also result in negative consequences. Walsh and Ungson (1991) also cite the work of Starbuck and Hedberg (1977), who claim that structured artifacts such as roles can do harm to an institution, when they lose their efficacy over time and actually become impediments to change.


Usage of the Organizational Memory model. Applications

  • Human Resources
  • Knowledge Management

Strengths of the Organizational Memory concept. Benefits

  • Gives a simple framework for guiding HR efforts in improving knowledge management.
  • Allows institutions to benefit from historical information and from learnings. Despite the transient nature of organizational membership (Berthon, Pitt & Ewing, 2001).
  • Can serve as a competitive advantage (Wexler, 2002; Croasdell, 2001).
  • Can actually reduce transaction costs (Croasdell, 2001).
  • Can serve a political role in organizations. This can have both positive and negative implications (Walsh and Ungson, 1991).

Limitations of Organizational Memory. Disadvantages

  • A too high emphasis on organizational memory can disable learning in an organization, causing rigidity and blindness: companies no longer notice changes in the environment.
  • Organizational memory is a function of an institution's age, size and success (Sinkula, 1994; Lukas, Hult and Ferrell, 1996; and Berthon, Pitt and Ewing, 2001).
  • Prior history may cause habitual decision making and in Single-loop learning (Berthon, Pitt and Ewing, 2001).
  • Artifacts such as roles and organizational structure, that are stored within the culture of institutions, may also become impediments to change (Walsh and Ungson, 1991).

Assumptions of the Organizational Memory model. Conditions

  • According to Walsh and Ungson (1991), when you think about organizational memory, you must consider three critical factors: retention, acquisition, and retrieval.

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Compare with Organizational Memory: Bridging Epistemologies  |  SECI model  |  Knowledge Management (Collison & Parcell)  |  Five Disciplines  |  Organizational Learning  |  Mechanistic and Organic Systems  |  Action Learning  |  Levels of Culture  |  Changing Organization Cultures  |  People CMM  |  MAGIC


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