How Can Institutional Memory Affect Us?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 11, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Tanya Harell, LPC

There are many theories on memory, and many other concepts related to the understanding of memory. In this post, we will discuss institutional memory. What is it? How can it affect us? Let's find out.

What Is Institutional Memory?

Want To Know How Institutional Memory Affects Your Life?

Institutional memory is the total collected amount of knowledge possessed by a group of people. These can include concepts, experiences, facts, and any other kind of knowledge. The group of people can include friends, or an organization itself.

For institutional memory to work, it needs to be always transferred between the different members of the organization. It can be a way for people to keep an ideology going or a way of how something works.

What Organizations Have Institutional Memory?

Institutional memory is contained in many organizations, as these can include:

  • The founder of the corporation has to spread their knowledge of how the corporation works if they want to keep the corporation going. Their secrets need to be kept between a group of people, usually in the higher ups.
  • The workplace. Many people in a workplace will be sharing information on how to do the job the best. Besides work information, they will be gossiping, talking to each other about other facts, and so on. You can learn a lot at a workplace.
  • Government bodies. How a government is supposed to run is an institutional memory that needs to be passed down to new members. Even a simple government office requires quite a bit of institutional memory.
  • Religious groups. The knowledge about one's religion, one's interpretation of a religion, and other factors about religion will be kept in a religious institution, be it a church, clergy, or religious body such as a school.
  • How a school is supposed to operate, and what knowledge is supposed to be taught, is passed down in quite a few ways. Teachers tell each other their techniques. The book they teach from is always updated as new information comes out. There are many shared secrets and knowledge in the place that is supposed to be about knowledge.
  • The entire culture you live in has institutional memory in its way. This can include the town you live in, the country, and even the world itself. Even though we are divided in many ways, many of us share knowledge.

Institutional memory can be transferred in many ways, from talking to other people, through written sources, and other ways.

Institutional memory can affect how an organization is run in a few ways. Here is how.

  • Institutional memory can affect who is allowed into the institution. For example, in college, how much knowledge you know can affect whether or not you're accepted. In a workplace, having connections to the institution can increase your chances of hiring. Not conforming to the information in the institution can end up making you lose your job.
  • The information can determine the organization's identity. Their branding, their philosophy, their philanthropy, and other identities can change through organizational memory.
  • The actions of the people in the institution can be affected by the memory. Someone is going to act differently under institutional memory than they would without it.

How Institutional Knowledge is Gained

Institutional knowledge occurs when people take historical data and put it into a skill. For example, in a religion, someone's interpretation of the Bible can affect how the organization is run. In a company that has been around for over a century, the current CEO's interpretation of the founder's philosophy can affect how the organization is run. In a school, the philosophies of the past teachers can influence the current staff.

All these factors prove that institutional memory is affected by how data is preserved and passed on, and how others analyze it.

Think about it. When it comes to interpreting a text, no two people have the same interpretation. There are thousands of interpretations of a religious text. Some people take the text. Literally, others take certain parts literally, and others think the text is all metaphorical. Some will try to obey all the teachings of a religious text, and others may select a few teachings to live by.

In an organization, the founder's interpretation on how to run the company will be spread everywhere in the organization. They may present their institutional knowledge to customers or observers.

Religion, however, is one of the biggest examples of institutional memory in history. Even if you're not religious, you probably have some knowledge on how the dominant religion in your country works. Even non-Christians know the basic story of Jesus Christ. People who aren't religious have a grasp on how the religion works.

There is also the theory that economic determinism determines institutional learning. This is the current state of the economy and how things are run. Someone will interpret an institutional memory in a particular way if they realize their interpretation is the best way to collect money.

Want To Know How Institutional Memory Affects Your Life?

When it comes to organizational structure, it's all determined by how the training is implemented, and what type of behavior is associated with the role you have. For example, two people may be trained to do a task differently. Meanwhile, someone may have different expectations when it comes to behavior. Someone who is favorited in the organization may be able to get away with a lot more than someone in the institution who is not favorited. Everyone has their little cliques in the organization, and someone may take advantage of preferred behavior and knowledge to get to the top. Meanwhile, if someone enters the institution and they're highly regarded, their institutional knowledge may go away.

This is because institutional memories need to be slowly implemented the idea is that someone joins the organization at the bottom, and then slowly absorbs the information around them. This causes someone to grow in the ranks until they've reached the top and have an as much institutional memory as possible.

Of course, this sometimes doesn't happen. Some people may ascend the ranks quickly because of favoritism, nepotism, or cronyism. Nepotism is when someone is given special treatment because they're family of the people working in the organization. Someone less qualified may be given the job over someone more qualified because they are the child of the manager, for example. With cronyism, it's more based on friends. A friend of a respected employee can be let into the organization much easier than someone who has no connections to the group. This is simply how the world works.

How Institutional Memory Can Be Preserved

When it comes to institutional memory, preservation is key. If we all forgot how to run the world, we might become hopeless humans. In the ideal world, the information would be put into a perfect record, such as a filing cabinet or a file on a computer. However, this isn't the perfect world. Institutional memory can change with the times. Interpretation and motivation from the person interpreting the information can damage the overall institutional power. For example, someone who has a certain religious philosophy may try to take the information that's known and twist it in a way that fits their religious lens.

It's hard to preserve institutional memory perfectly. Often, the founders of the organization are dead, so no one can consult them on what they meant by their philosophy. Words get misinterpreted, there is a lot of communication that's misheard, and as time passes, so does the expectations of society. It's difficult to preserve the information entirely as it originally was.

Despite the problems with information changing with interpretation, it does appear to be inevitable. How we run an organization will evolve with a new generation. The Bible we read wasn't the same as the original version written down. Different people writing the rules may change around their rules to suit their philosophy. Our only solution is to go by an organizational memory you approve of. You don't have to agree with everything, but if an organization memory doesn't align somewhat with your values, you should either try to make a change or move on to another organization that has values better suited for you.

Organizational memory is fascinating and should be studied for years to come. If you want to learn more about organizational memory, it's worth checking out.

Seek Help!

When it comes to keeping your values, or the values of the organization, it can be hard to make sense of it all. Values change and evolve. You may be unsure of if you're doing the right thing or not if you're in an organization. Luckily, there is a way for you to receive help when it comes to figuring out the path you should walk on.

That's by talking to a therapist. A counselor will be able to make some sense of the world and give you an organizational memory worth following.

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.