Organizational Dementia

One of the nastier mental conditions that can strike an individual is dementia. According to Google, dementia is defined as:

a chronic or persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning.

If you've ever witnessed someone develop dementia you know it can be very distressing for the individual and those around them. It is a complex condition and we don't even know if there is a way to cure the condition.

Prior Art

Sometimes I wonder whether organizations also exhibit some of the traits of dementia. In fact, I'm not the only person to reflect on this. Eric Klein from Dharma Consulting wrote about 10 Ways to Overcome Organizational Dementia. I couldn't find an earlier reference with a cursory search so I'll attribute the coining of the term to Eric.

I'd recommend reading Eric's article, it tackles how the leadership of an organization can induce a kind of dementia. You might argue that Eric's article deals with one attribute of dementia, the one surrounding personality.

Developing Amnesia

There are other attributes of dementia too - specifically, impaired memory, and that is what I'm writing about today.

As an organization, Readify deals with hundreds of customers across dozens of industries. Each month that equates to hundreds of commercial transactions as we deploy software experts to help customers solve their business problems by designing and building custom software. We've been in business for close to 15 years now and in that time we've delivered a lot of projects that tackle a lot of problems. But how well can we recall those projects?

Organizational memory is the union of the individual human memories of the members of the organization, and the data recorded in the systems that support them. As a software services company, if we don't keep a record of the projects that we have completed, and the individuals that were directly involved with that project are no longer present (or we don't know they were involved) then we've effectively lost that experience. It is possible to develop a kind of organizational amnesia.

At Readify, we are lucky, we've got quite a few people that have been with the business for a long time, so our memory goes pretty deep, but the ability to recall deep memories is only dimension of memory recall and has its own problems. We also need to consider the breadth of recall, especially in a growing business.

Exacerbation of Scale

When an organization is small, the collective experience of the organization can be contained wholly within the member individuals. As the organization grows in headcount and geographically, natural breaks appear in the communication fabric which make it easy for memories or experiences not to be replicated - add a level of natural churn and you've got ideal conditions for memory loss.

The combination of memory loss and scale also allows a lack of cohesion to develop within the business which if left unchecked can build into little fiefdoms appearing all over the place.

If you've got an organization that is beginning to operate at scale then you'll be familiar with some of the challenges that I've alluded to above.

Analogies can only be stretched so far so I'll avoid demonstrating my ignorance around medical treatments for dementia. Instead, I'll focus on the technology based treatments for organizational dementia, specifically I'll talk about systems - systems of collaboration and systems of record.

I believe that if you want to effectively mitigate and reverse organizational dementia you need to increase the level of collaboration across isolated parts of the business and make sure that you are recording pertinent information that you might want to recall later.

So how do we work better together?

Systems of Collaboration

One of the first things that I think any organisation can do better is make sure that it is brain dead easy for people to collaborate. It would be easy to say "install this" or "subscribe to that" and your problems are solved - it'd be easy, but it would also be wrong.

One of our most important systems of collaboration in Readify is SharePoint. When we go and talk to a potential client we create an opportunity in our CRM system. We have developed an extension in SharePoint that presents a list of customers and allows us to quickly provision a customer site and upload a whole set of default configuration.

From the very first time we talk to the client we can be collaborating over shared documents. I've seen this used in meetings to great effect where two technical folks can be sketching out ideas on their tablets as they are conversing with the client and the two consultants are keeping in sync.

We didn't always use SharePoint well though. The genesis of our current Intranet was a critical mass of staff using it for collaboration, followed by an Information Architecture & Design process that we worked on with our partner, The Folk.

Thinking back on it now, I think that building successful systems of collaboration depend not just on technology, but also buy in from people and a process of curating and improving content over time.

Systems of Record

Whilst SharePoint is our system of collaboration, it isn't the authoritative data source for our commercial transaction data. We use a combination a finance system (MYOB) and Dynamics CRM. In fact we've got two CRM systems, we have CRM deployed on-premises but we are actively migrating across to Dynamics CRM Online internally. As you can probably imagine this is a process that you do very carefully because it would be easy to break the business.

It would be possible to build a CRM solution in SharePoint, but it wouldn't be a smart thing to do. SharePoint is heavily orientated towards creating and collaborating on content, whereas a CRM system cares much more about structured data (such as customer and contact details).

Whilst your system of collaboration might store the detailed information about how you solved a particular problem for a customer, a system of record will tell you that you helped that customer in the first place, who you were dealing with at the customer, and the problem nature of the problem being solved.

We first introduced Dynamics CRM to Readify back in 2004 (I can tell because that is where the first records were created) - and I was involved. Like all new systems there was a fair amount of stumbling as the system started to impact our business. Unfortunately, like a lot of organisations who insist their process is best, we also impacted CRM! As a result our CRM system has a fair amount of customisation which, in hindsight I think a lot of us would like to remove.

This is perhaps one of the real benefits we expect the receive from moving to Dynamics CRM Online. The opportunity to leave behind some of the less optimal practices of the past and pick up some better record keeping habits.

What's the point?

If you've read this far then you've done well. I'm prone to short walks down memory lane, perhaps a sign of the early onset of dementia?

The point is, if you want to tackle organizational dementia then you need to implement not only the systems of collaboration, and the systems of record, but you need to develop the process habits to make sure that as an organisation you don't develop short and long term memory loss which are key ingredients to the ailment.