Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Institutional Memory



It's been a long time since I've blogged about something educational, other than my classes of course.  With one thing down (and a million more to go), I decided to take a little breather to see what's accumulated on Pocket over these past few months.  I saw a post by Martin Weller on Institutional Memory, and it seemed quite pertinent to my day to day work existence these past six or so months.  Martin points to a BBC article indicating that the optimal time in a specific job is around 3 years.

This isn't the first time I've heard this.  About 11 years ago (wow!) I was working for my university library.  I was new to the Systems Department (the IT department in a library) and my supervisor was new.  When we were getting to know more about each other's work histories (before you could look at LinkedIn profiles), she had told me that she aimed to stay there for a few years and then move on. People should only stay in their current work for 3 years. At the time I found this advice a little odd, after all I had stayed with my previous department for 8 years total, before moving to the library, and even then I still stayed within the institution.

From my own experience I can say that if institutions were perfectly running machines, with perfectly documented procedures, and good version histories that we could reference to get an insight into why things are done the way they are done, then "short" 3 year stays at a job (or an institution) might (in theory) make sense.  You come in, the institution benefits from your expertise, you benefit from the experience, you (metaphorically) hug and go your separate ways at the end of your tour. However, institutions are complex organisms. The reasons why things are the way they are might not be documented. Sometimes the procedure was a backroom deal between one academic Dean and another.  Sometimes it's the duct tape and paper-clip that holds everything together because at the time the organization didn't have the ability to break everything down and rework something from scratch.  Other times it's good ol' fashioned human-human relationships that make things work (i.e. bypassing parts of the system where things are bottlenecked but no one will change things).

Given this reality, I think 3 years is a rather short time to spend at a job or an institution.  I know that when I've changed jobs it's taken me up to a year to fully "get" all the connections, the people, and the systems in place to not only do my job but to do my job effectively and efficiently. Leaving before you can make a lasting impact at the institution is a little selfish given that the employee gets good exposure to new skills and ideas, but leaves before they can really put those to use on anything more than a bandaid†.

Sure.  Even when you stay at an organization for more than 3 years, after a little while you will reach the plateau of efficiency in what you are doing. It may take you 3 years, it might take you 2, it might take more.  Sooner or later you will get there.  At that point, that's when the organization has a responsibility to keep things fresh for their employees. This benefits both the organization and the employees.  Employees feel challenged, in good ways, (think of it as a ZPD for work), and organizations get to retain and employ the talent that they've incubated.  If people leave because they feel bored that's a shortcoming of the organization.

I know that in my own experience working at my university (19 years now), even though my jobs have changed, and my departments have changed, that institutional knowledge follows me, and I share it with other people. Just because something might not be of particular use to me right now, it doesn't mean that it's not useful to another colleague who is newer at the institution.  Having this oral history, and this means of passing it down to others is of use.  Leaving your post and experiencing this high turnover rate  is detrimental to an institution‡.

Your thoughts?



NOTES:
† Don't get me wrong, private sector companies, especially ones that vehemently refuse union organization, and use globalization as a way to use and abuse employees by not paying them a living wage, by not providing good benefits, and by shirking their responsibilities in their social contracts are not worthy of employee loyalty of this nature. We just can't afford, as people to to say "I am only looking out for myself".

‡ Another thing that came to mind, as I was writing this, has to do with hiring. Hiring isn't as simple as posting a job at the university's "help wanted" site. Between the time a need for someone arises, and someone is hired, it can take a very (very) long time.  Just as an example, there are two jobs that come to mind that I applied for.  One for my current job where I applied in March, interviewed in December, started in February).  My job at library systems where I applied in February (I think), got the call for an interview in November, heard that I got the job in December, started in January. All of this is considered "fast", so when it takes that long to get hired, I would say that 3 years somewhere is a rather short time.
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