Memories are made of this

Kim Sbarcea has a new blog – ThinkingShift.  There is a thought-provoking article there on how “future archaeologists will view 21st Century life.”  It does make you wonder what we will look like…  I am reminded of a short story I read years ago about alien archaeologists exploring a post-apocalypse Earth, and pondering deeply on the cultural significance of a Donald Duck cartoon that had been preserved.

My brother has just completed his Master’s in archaeology.  His wife is writing a history of the city of Darwin for a Doctorate in history.  (This is a sequel to her earlier book, The Evolution of Darwin – you’ve got to love the title!)

In a recent conversation with them, I have only just become aware of a major bone of contention between these two disciplines.  My lay interpretation of this is as follows…

The archaeologist is interested in artefacts – things you can see and touch.  Oral history is not only meaningless to the archaeologist, it is anathema.  To the historian, however, oral history is in some cases the only thing they have to go on.  As you can imagine, there is some (good-natured) debate in my brother’s household.

So how will people remember our organisations in the future?

What will we leave behind of our business achievements (other than architecture)?  Perhaps more importantly, how easy is it to find out what we did one year ago, let alone a millennium?

When a new staff member joins a team, or one person tries to pick up work for another that is absent on maternity leave, do we know which document repository the files they need are stored in?  Are they on a PC that we don’t have access to?  How do we find the right files – and the right versions?  Do co-workers have an oral history, or do we have to dig?


  1. Thanks, Enrico.

    Some organisations that focus on gathering “exit knowledge” have been criticised for not paying more attention to people or their knowledge earlier – while still on the job. However, not many organisations I am aware of even do this much… (I think many organisations are still seeing people as (expendable) resources, and not as assets.)

    How many times can we keep reinventing the wheel, without even asking about what we have learnt from previous wheel-related projects? History teaches us that man learns nothing from history…

  2. Thanks Keith and Kim for your thoughts. I like the notions of both Historian and Archaeologist. Many corporate stories have been passed on, like tacit wisdom, through the oral tradition. One can assume the Archaeologist position by sifting through the storeroom or hand-me-down notebook/workstation with the myriad PC files (of a forgotten ex-colleague) to dredge up the past, so to speak. I was watching Season 7 of ‘The West Wing’, and in the penultimate chapter it focuses on Institutional Memory. That is where, ex-staff of the outgoing administration leave and take with them a huge body of knowledge that can be pertinent to the next Administration, if this is retained. So, how much do we lose when staff leave our organisations?

    In a nutshell, perhaps Institutional Memory (an aspect of KM) is about preserving valuable staff, their knowledge, connections, insights, foresights, hindsights and tacit wisdom. However, it stands to reason that ‘Our best people are our best assets’, to quote from the book, ‘From Good to Great’.

  3. Thanks Kim. I spoke last week at an Ark Group conference in Sydney on “Transforming Workplace Environments”. I was speaking on Change Management. The delegates were a fairly eclectic group. At least one delegate seemed to struggle with the Change Management presentations. I was unable to stay for the whole conference, but there was some interesting discussion on the impact of workplace on work styles, culture, etc – and vice versa. I would have liked to have heard more…

  4. Hi Keith
    Your post has prompted me to think about embedded knowledge in cities and buildings – I’ll do a post on this on my blog soon. By this I mean, when nothing is left of our own time but the building or the shell – what knowledge will future generations take from this? ie materials chosen; craftsmanship; signs and designs; the use of space. I think there’s a lot of embedded knowledge in our cities and buildings – not just the documents and databases of our organisations. I like your notion of the historian and the archaeologists – are KM practitioners one or the other? or a bit of both?

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