Poetry at Work: The Poetry of Institutional Memory

I’m talking with a colleague at work about his retirement. We’re going through one of those endless series of departmental reorganizations, and he’s announced his intention to retire some months from now. I’m interested in the mechanics of his decision; he’s less than three years older than I am and once he retires, I will be what’s left of institutional memory not only for our organization, but perhaps even for the entire corporation of 23,000 people.

“I talked with people who’ve retired from the company,” he says. “And while there are the financial things you should have been doing all along, and there are things you might want to do after retirement, what they tell me is pretty simple. You can’t really anticipate it until you’re in it. No one effectively plans for retirement; there will always be little surprises, and likely some big ones, too. You really are entering another phase of your life, and life can’t really be planned for.”

I’m reminded of something I just read at Donald Miller’s Storyline blog. “Knowledge over an issue gives us the false sense we can predict it and understand it and in some ways control it,” he writes. My colleague is telling me the same is true for retirement.

This is not an idle question for me to while away the hours considering. The question of retirement is not assuming an urgency, but it is looming larger—larger than it ever has.

Related is the question of institutional memory. Organizations of all stripes generally believe that institutional memory is not important. In our arrogance and pride we think we know more than anyone who came before us; we have technology and data and market research that no one had before us, and we will avoid making the same mistakes. We are different, we are smarter, and we’re generally rather smug about it.

We are also wrong.

My company and the industry it’s part of are going through the third or fourth iteration of the same problems of disconnect from public understanding. I was originally hired by the company in the middle of the first wave in the late 1970s. It happened again in the late 1980s and late 1990s. It’s been happening, with increasing loudness, since about 2007. Each time it’s seen as something new and original, largely because institutional memory has disappeared.

Too much institutional memory was packaged out, took early retirement, or both. Much of it was outsourced and gradually disappeared into other streams, and others’ streams.

Perhaps I’ve read too much of the Latin American magic realists and poets—Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Pablo Neruda. The past is never really the past. The past is always with us, shaping, influencing, informing. We’re generally unaware of the importance of this. William Wordsworth’s “The child is father of the man” was not the first statement of how we’re shaped by our past, if it is among the best known. What is true for individuals is usually collectively true for organizations.

We think we have Emily’s Dickinson’s wings:

To flee from memory 

To flee from memory
Had we the Wings
Many would fly
Inured to slower things
Birds with surprise
Would scan the cowering Van
Of men escaping
From the mind of man

My colleague and I continue to talk; neither one of us feels much sadness over what happens to institutional memory. It is a fact of life, and we can remind people only so many times before we’re viewed as somewhat obstructionist naysayers and doddering old fogies. So we both have let mistakes go forward without saying anything but also without participating in their commission.

Sometimes the loss of memory is so great and so obvious that it must be contracted with or found somewhere. Companies will hire consultants who used to work for them, who can provide (for a contractual fee) a specific piece of the institutional memory that has disappeared. But once it’s fractured, it can never be utilized except for something immediate and of short duration, and even then the personal intrudes into the institutional.

Retirement by Karl Shapiro

Something tells him he is off-limits
When he visits the old establishment, maybe for mail.
He still has his key, but it has a slippery feel.
A colleague gives him a startled look, an over-emphatic Hi!
Both act almost as if they’d seen a ghost,
Both know they would rather meet on the street
Than in this particular environment, why
Meeting like this is a kind of misstep.
They wave each other off like a gardener and a bee.
Leaving, he stumbles a little, out of deference
Hoping he won’t run into any Young Turks.

What both my colleague and I know is that neither of us is suited for coming back to “help out.” We’re the last of the institutional memory, and when we’re gone, it will be gone with us. For us, that’s acceptable. We have given at the office, as the expression says. We were paid for the work we did, and we often did far more than what we were paid for. But still, we can accept that.

For the organization, the loss is potentially tragic.

Image by Andreas Levers. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Glynn Young, author of the novels Dancing Priest and A Light Shining, and the just-published Poetry at Work (T. S. Poetry Press).


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  1. says

    This is fascinating to me on a number of levels, Glynn. I find myself in a similar position at my current church which I helped plant. My husband and I are some of the few “old timers” left and, yes, you do see wave after wave of reorganization and the same problems manifest again and again, the old disguised as something new (and EXCITING! to some). Edwin Friedman’s book, Generation to Generation opened my eyes to the impact of systems and history both in families and institutions which is both fascinating and discouraging at times. I suppose the challenge may be to give up the temptation to circle back again and again to these old places and to learn to lean into something new, which I guess may be also what you’re hinting about concerning retirement. Thanks for weaving these thoughts together, Glynn.

  2. says

    Is it woven into a culture? Is it work-specific?

    I cannot help but to compare what you describe to the process an artisan goes through as he/she learns a trade — after years of work alongside a master craftsman. Honor. Diligence. End-product. Pride. Quality.

    Is that what’s missing?

    That which has been is what will be,
    That which is done is what will be done,
    And there is nothing new under the sun. ~ Ecc.1:9

    Despite the seriousness (and the generational impact) of this piece, this is my favorite bit: “somewhat obstructionist naysayers and doddering old fogies” — because we know you aren’t. 😉

  3. says

    Also, that’s a most beautiful, and somewhat haunting, image. I cannot tell if the movement indicated by the blurring is a coming or a leaving… maybe that’s the point.

  4. says

    “The past is never really the past. The past is always with us, shaping, influencing, informing. We’re generally unaware of the importance of this.”

    The other day I ran into a woman I used to work with. She hired into the health department, she said, 17 years ago–as an immunizations secretary when I was the “Imms Queen.” I don’t think it was too long after that I “retired” to move into another field. But she told me they’d just had a retirement party for the nurse who hired me–who was a fixture in that place. In fact, most of the memory-makers have moved on (or in one case, died.) But that place, those years, will always be a part of me.

  5. says

    This is so true, so true. There is much more living to be done post-retirement, as I have been discovering. But institutional memory loss is a hard, sad thing. We spend far too much time re-inventing the wheel.

  6. says

    I’m watching an organization go through this right now. Even newer people, on the job for a year, are leaving. Only one person is staying–the sole institutional memory of the organization.

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