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Technology Is Not Enough: Improving Performance by Building Organizational Memory

To improve business performance, cutting-edge companies are transitioning from the simple accumulation of individually acquired knowledge to ensuring that their employees "capture" knowledge for collective benefit. Some of these organizations rely on databases to store the lessons learned through experience. However, the authors argue that technology alone does not improve performance. Employees learn the most by interacting with other employees; when seeking information, they are more likely to turn to trusted colleagues than to databases. Although technology plays a useful role, managers must understand the many channels through which knowledge migrates into organizations and address the idiosyncratic ways in which people actually seek out information and solve problems.

Key experiences, such as new product development or core work processes, generate knowledge that becomes part of an organization's memory. The knowledge is held within individuals, networks and relationships, information repositories, work processes and support systems, and product and service offerings. Business performance improves as managers use the growing stores of knowledge to guide organizational activities, structures, and processes.

Building organizational memory involves three steps. First, managers determine which experiences are worth learning from. They should target projects and activities of the greatest strategic importance. These are often critical business initiatives, such as new product roll-outs. Second, managers provide structures that encourage individuals and groups to reflect on and share what they have learned from their experiences. Successful approaches used by companies include "after action reviews," peer reviews and collaboration, and communities of practice. Finally, managers embed the lessons of experience into information repositories, work processes and support systems, and products and services. Methods include intranet sites, online communities, expert evaluation of proposed process improvements, and product line extensions or new product lines based on previous learning. Through these actions, managers ensure that knowledge is not only abstracted from experience but also effectively driven into operations.

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