Tuesday, 13 November 2012

How organisations need to forget

Should an organisation forget? Seems a strange idea, given how we prize information. But a recent study suggests that an eidetic memory may get in the way of a coherent, enduring identity.

Researchers Michel Anteby and Virág Molnár studied the French aeronautics firm Snecma, founded by de Gaulle in 1945. It's preeminence in the field was seen as a national success, and Snecma cast itself as a quintessentially national company. Anteby and Molnár were interested in how this influenced how the company reported on and remembered times where it operated together with other nations. They investigated this through interviews with company retirees, and review archival material and the company bulletins, 347 in all, which acted as the formal voice and memory bank of the organisation.

Snecma was involved in two major collaborations where its future course depended on foreign assistance.  The first was just after WWII where the development of key engine technology was jump-started by a contingent of 120 German and Austrian engineers, leading to among other things the development of the ATAR engine. Yet amongst the 5,622 pages of bulletins describing these endeavours, only five made explicit mention of any German involvement. Another source stated that Snecma's management made a 'more or less conscious drive to "erase" the German presence responsible for the ATAR'. This continued well into the 1980s, where a speech at the retirement of an engineer saluted him as entering the company as a simple draftsman, when in fact he had trained as an engineer in Germany during the war.

This was mirrored in the second instance of foreign assistance, a 1969 collaboration with General Electric to develop civilian engines. Just 0.3% of bulletin pages on GE-related activities made explicit reference to GE itself. Many of the retirees interviewed had worked closely with GE counterparts, often visiting the US to do so, and when probed could recall benefits of these collaborations such as access to technology that was superior and even remarkable, such as x-ray-like machines that allowed them to peer inside engines. But their natural habits of recounting their Snecma experience omitted these elements, focusing on  their time within the country and referring to a key engine that resulted from this collaboration as a Snecma creation. It seems that even vivid direct experiences became discoloured and de-emphasised by a consistent organisational leaning towards remembering the national and forgetting the foreign.

The result? In the minds of the retirees, the national quality of Snecma's identity endures. 'Snecma's success was France's success', quoth one. Just as the autobiographical narratives that shape individual human identity involve both focused attention and deliberate castings-away - so it seems that organisational identity endures through selective forgetting.

ResearchBlogging.orgAnteby, M., & Molnar, V. (2012). Collective Memory Meets Organizational Identity: Remembering to Forget in a Firm's Rhetorical History Academy of Management Journal, 55 (3), 515-540 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2010.0245

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