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History of group memory

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

Memory in relation to groups and organisations has been the focus of many studies examining the connection between individuals and groups, and memory. However, group memory in relation to team meetings has received little attention.

The following is a brief background of memory in relation to groups. This includes collective memory, group cognitive capacities, collaborative memory and corporate memory in relation to where information being lost or forgotten, and the impact this has groups work. Albeit not wishing to present an academic piece, I have included references as footnotes and within the text in honour of the authors and researchers in case some of you should you want to find out more about their work.

Commencing as early as 1911, there was much documented interest about organisational memory[1]. Initially, organisational memory concepts focused on the knowledge residing with individuals. Today there is more emphasis on group memory and knowledge as opposed to an individual’s capacity. Team mental models, according to Mohammed and Dumville (2001), “mean that team effectiveness will improve if team members have an adequate shared understanding of the task, team, equipment and situation” (p.89). Betts and Hinsz (2010) suggest that collaboration allows group members to pool their memories through group memory processes and memory tasks to improve group memory performance.

The origins of transactive memory stem from Wegner's (1987) work with long-term couples, which soon found its way into organisational thinking[2]. Transactive memory systems (TMSs), according to Wegner, are located with individuals and are connected with who knows about what in a team. Theiner’s (2013) analysis contributes to the debate about how TMSs are understood and argues that “group cognition cannot be reduced to individual cognition” (p.65). However, Theiner concluded that Wegner’s work has “rekindled interest in group level memory phenomena and has served as a valuable guide” (p.85).

An additional earlier workplace memory paradigm was that of collective memory. Collective memory has been described as the pool of knowledge, memory and information shared by a group[3] and defined as “a central facet of our being in time” and that it was the “negotiation of the past and present through which we define our individual and collective selves” (p.1). From Weldon and Bellinger’s (1997) collective memory experiments, “groups exhibit some of the same collective memory phenomena as individuals “(p.1173). Weldon’s (2000) explicit vision of “memory as a social process” that included socially distributed remembering and recall along with retrieval-induced forgetting (p.78), has also been influential. In more recent times the Roediger and DeSoto (2016) empirical study with 326 participants broadened this view by declaring that collective remembering also implies collective forgetting, meaning that how groups collectively remember can be attributed to how they forget.

David and Brächet's (2011) framework for distinguishing contributions of labour turnover and human capital depreciation provides empirical evidence of organisational forgetting. Ultimately, firms lose production experience, information and intellectual property by failing to capture and store lessons learned as the workforce turns over. From a political point of view, Minarova-Banjac (2018) stated that “collective forgetting can be attributed to selective remembering and disremembering of knowledge to exclude alternative views and perspectives”(p.3). Press, Choi, Kensinger and Rajaram (2017) found in their empirical study that the “social transmission of emotional memory had consequences on collective memory in interpersonal, sociocultural and political arenas” (p.1247), while the Licata and Mercy (2015) social psychology of collective memory review suggested that “collective memories are shared representations of a group’s past and that they influence the present” (p.194).

Moving to group memory, attention, learning and problem-solving cognition, Theiner, Allen and Goldstone (2010) reviewed group memory case studies and found that group cognitive capacities were typically applied to individuals who aligned with group cognitive capacities. This claim is supported by their research showing that groups have organisation-dependent cognitive capacities that go beyond the simple aggregation of the cognitive capacities of individuals. An example of this is that groups solve problems where an individual cannot. Theiner et al. (2010) also argued that “the concepts of group mind or extended mind need to be replaced with specific discussions in regard to group memory, group problem solving and group collaboration” (p. 379).

Collaborative group memory has received more attention in recent years (Rajaram & Pereira-Pasarin, 2010;Rajaram, Maswood, & Maswood, 2017). Group collaboration, according to Sutton, Harris, Keil and Barnier's (2010) distinct conceptual and empirical study, involves recall and socially distributed remembering known as “transactive social memory” (p.521). This means that the social transactions between group members assist in enhancing group memory. Betts and Hinz (2010) defined collaborative group memory as it related to processes, performance and techniques for improvement. From their systematic research review on memory processes in groups they suggest that “collaboration enhances select performance outcomes and allows group members to pool their memories and correct each other’s memory errors” (p.119). In addition, Betts and Hinz (2010) presented a cognitive-social-motivational framework for viewing collaborative group memory processes and memory tasks as an intervention where collaborative group memory performance could be improved.

Group memory performance has been the catalyst for corporate memory research. Corporate memory, according to Mendenhall (2006) is the accumulated technical knowledge of a group or organisation. Mendenhall referred to this as “tribal knowledge of a subject, ... and it is the capability that has been built up with the experience and lessons learned from many projects” (p.258). The process of capturing, archiving and retrieving this information is called “corporate memory” (p.259). Corporate amnesia, as referred to by Kransdorff (1998), is the forgetting of corporate memory that fails to establish organisational memory to capture company-specific knowledge gained from experience so as to be an essential and powerful management tool. Kransdorff (1998) hypothesized that organisational memory was an intellectual asset and probably the most important constituent of any organisation’s durability. Corporate memory management was the core tenet of an empirical study by Stamati and Papadopoulos (2012). This study examined how corporate memory could be understood, exploited and enriched. It was revealed that managing corporate memory positively impacted the development of a memory-intensive culture, memory visibility and memory infrastructure. These factors, although complex, “represented a business differentiator” (p.39). Throughout the study, digital corporate memory structures were not highlighted specifically, yet the importance of addressing internal meta-corporate memory capabilities was strongly emphasised.

Nevo, Benbasat and Wand's (2012) empirical research suggested that meta-memory is that which develops an organisation’s transactive memory that needs to incorporate the potential application of technologies. This was demonstrated in their investigation through “collaborative procedures (‘transactions’) by which groups encode, store and retrieve information that is distributed among their members” (p.70). According to Nevo et al. (2012) it is these group knowledge practices within organisations that instil and enhance group memory.

Enhanced group memory improves shared mental models, mutually shared cognition and group cognition. According to Decuyper et al. (2010), shared mental models are team members shared, organised understandings and mental representations of knowledge about the key elements of the team’s task environment. They result from team learning processes. Similarly, mutually shared cognition is described by Boon et al. (2013) as the primary outcome of the team learning process and is positively related to team performance. In answering the question “What exactly is shared?” Boon et al. (2013) offer four broad categories. The first two relate to the team tasks of task-specific knowledge and agreement about what the task-related processes are in the team. The third is the team members’ knowledge of each other and the final category is the shared attitudes and beliefs among those team members.

Team mental models, according to t Mohammed et al.'s (2010) systematic review, are described as “ representing one type of team cognition, which are organised mental representations of the key elements within a team's relevant environment that are shared across team members” (p. 876). In contrast to individual located knowledge, Mohammed and Dumville (2001) suggest that “team effectiveness significantly improves if team members have an adequate shared understanding of the task, team, equipment and situation” (p.89). Further, a team mental model is described as the “team members' shared, organised understanding, along with their mental representation of knowledge about key elements of the team's work” (p.90). Olick (1999) maintains that how the past is remembered and interpreted is significant to the group’s identity, historical representations and ways of working.

In contrast, Tindale, Stawiski, Jacobs, Stawiski and Jacobs (2012) discussed shared mental models as having two distinct aspects: the first being shared representations of the task; and the second - shared representations of the group (p.75).

Mohamed and Dumville (2001) stated that “in order for a team to achieve a shared, organised understanding of knowledge about key elements in the relevant environment, changes in the knowledge or behaviour of team members will most likely occur. There, group learning plays a significant role in the development, modification, and reinforcement of mental models” (p.97-98).

In summary, group memory occurs when teams are working together. It is how that group memory is harnessed for the benefit of efficiencies and productivity that makes the difference. Conscious group memory development ensures shared understanding and learning is built on, referred to, stored and maintained for the betterment of application, practice, review and continuous improvement.

[1] David & Brächet, 2011; Taylor, 1911; Walsh & Ungson, 1991; Yates, 1990 [2] Rau, 2005; Theiner, 2013 [3] (Halbwachs, 1980; Olick, 1999). Olick (1999)

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