Loss Of Institutional Memory Contributes To Things Falling Apart


The so-called “Great Resignation,” the exodus of employees to new jobs, retirement, or unemployment with plans to be made for the future, has been described largely from the perspective of the employee. Reasons given include greater mobility, experiences working from home during COVID, dissatisfaction with pay, or lure of perceived better alternatives. The workforce that remains typically experiences longer hours, greater responsibility, and burn out associated with an increased workload. This in turn may cause some of these remaining employees to leave. Leaving can be more of a problem than we give it credit for and there are some who leave who also wish to return, at least possibly at reduced hours or in a related field. If everyone leaves the field at the same time, or, less obviously, if some key employees or managers or contacts are no longer there who left or were promoted into jobs for which they have had little or no experience, problems can be encountered even if the person means to make the right decision and even where there are detailed written or online instructions how to handle the next issue. There cannot be nor should there be a written manual or online instruction guide to handle every conceivable situation and others that were never encountered before. It is actually impossible.

There is a continuity that has been disrupted in organizations from the smallest up to and including major corporations as people leave and it is difficult to find a term to describe it. The closest I could find was loss of institutional memory. This is one reason why the lack of continuity in one area can affect others in unexpected ways. Here is a description and some examples of how it works.

“Institutional memory has been defined as ‘the stored knowledge within the organization.’ Within any organization, tools and techniques will need to be adapted to meet that organization’s needs. These adaptations are developed over time and taught to new members of the group, keeping them from encountering the same problems and having to develop a solution that already exists. In this way, organizations save time and resources that might otherwise be wasted…” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institutional_memory)

The summary goes on to explain that two automobile repair shops could have the same model car lift. The lifts and instructions could be identical but the dimensions of the shops could differ. Current employees can inform new employees of a workaround to take differences into account. “Institutional memory requires the ongoing transmission of memories between members of the group. As such, it relies on a continuity of group membership. If everyone at the aforementioned auto shop quit at once, the employees hired to replace them would not be able to benefit from the previous group’s experience…” id.

This is obviously not limited to auto shops. Taking another example, if certain information needs to be provided by a given date in order to obtain a given result but the form does not arrive in time to comply with that date (or arrives by mail later, sometimes much later), how would the person reviewing the case respond. Would they require a written appeal? Is there a way of waiving an appeal? The person who held that position previously might have experienced the same problem and known the answer but that person is no longer present and available.

In senior care, as in other areas, it can be difficult both to find workers for in-home care and for staffing senior communities, personal care and nursing homes. If there are more applicants for services and it is unknown whether the needs can be met, how should this be handled? Should applicants be told to wait, to explore options with other providers or anything at all?

Where there are questions regarding care, should those questions be raised with others in the organization or must the provider make the decision with limited information (or too much information but the information online does not discuss the specific problem?)

Some problems have some clearly defined answers how to handle. Regarding care in a facility, for instance, participation in a Care Plan Meeting, which has recognized guidelines, something our office participates in, can be extremely helpful. Across all disciplines, we need to develop experience that can be handed on to others and appreciate the experienced persons who pass this information along.

About the Author Janet Colliton

Esquire, Colliton Law Associates, P.C. Janet Colliton has practiced law for over 38 years, 37 of them in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her practice, Colliton Law Associates, PC, is limited to elder law, Medicaid, including advice, applications and appeals, and other benefits planning including Veterans benefits, life care and special needs planning, guardianships, retirement, and estate planning and administration.

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