Corporate memory? The human record?

The human race, like many other entities, operates in cycles. Empires rise and fall. Seasons come and go. And we continue to make the same mistakes many times, over and over.

As individuals, we can rely on our memory (if we have a decent one!) to remember our mistakes and try to avoid them in the future. Even this breaks down if you believe in reincarnation; under this scenario, your memory of past lives is so tenuous that you may very well be making the same mistakes over and over, like in a B-grade execution of ‘Ground Hog’s Day’.

What about corporations? I have just been through some experiences that tell me corporations have no memory, despite (sometimes) their best intentions. If we look at the major corporate disasters of the last decade, we could probably find that the root cause was identified, at the same company or industry, as a major cause of concern sometime over the last century. On a smaller scale, we all experience times when we see our bosses’ bosses make the same mistake over and over, especially when it comes to people matters. It still dumbfounds me that organisations with bonus programmes continue to undermine the ability of management to “share good times” across the team with some form of token payment. I am not arguing that the wealth created by a corporation should go to its’ employees rather than to its shareholders. But we all know that management theory argues we can motivate employees to higher levels of performance when they feel they have ‘skin on the game’. Despite the many occasions our corporations have had to experience the mistake of mis-managing these programs and seeing key talent flee the organisation, we continue to see companies making the same mistake over and over; allowing the very few that are politically savvy enough to look after themselves rather than their group to secure the small portion of the bonus pool, whilst the mass goes on with a token excuse for a share of the pie, or even worse, an excuse for why they did not share in record profits.

But is this restricted to corporations? Not by a long shot. If we extend our analysis to the human race, we find that the same principle applies. How many times will our civilisation have to make the same mistakes before it learns? How many wars will we have to wage to realise that, in the long term, it makes no difference? Boundaries are a figment of our imagination. Nations are intellectual constructs we use to create divisions ‘amongst brothers’. We know from experience we are a diverse race. We know from experience that everywhere are ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people, and that the ‘bad’ people will defy any attempt at pre-identification and classification (dare I say profiling?). And we also know from experience that no amount of military power will shape a society; it is only in the collaborative undertaking of the political process that societies will rise, and eventually, powers will be shaped. And then the cycle starts again.

In my beloved Australia, we just held a general election where the long-standing Primer Minister for the last ten years, the Hon. John W Howard, was defeated, giving rise to the labour movement into the prime power position in our political landscape. I am excited by the volley of changes that will result from this election, starting with the first one of which was long overdue: Australia’s ratification of the Kyoto protocol. But I am no dreamer (ok, I am a bit: I always hope for the best; want to change the world; try to make someone else’s day every day – but I digress). I am realistic enough to know if Kevin Rudd stays in power for long enough, that power will corrupt and lead him to re-make some major mistakes of the past. I have been thinking for long enough in my life to be aware that the new powers at the helm will also struggle with the complexity of achieving a balance, and will most likely have a negative impact on our economy, in the long term. In short, our dear country will most likely repeat many of its’ mistake of the past. And to some extent, that is a good thing. Because it is in those mistakes that worrisome linear trends will be broken. New ones will emerge, and we will have a different set of concerns to deal with. But that’s ok. At the point, we will change powers, allow others to undo some of the new mistakes, and make some old ones of their own volition.

Does the human record serve any purpose? I invite you, my dear readers, to post your opinion in the comments section. Let’s see what healthy debate we can create in this space.


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