It is generally recognized that Walsh and Ungson (1991) “provided the first integrative framework for thinking about organizational memory” (Olivera, 2000, p. 813). Within the field of knowledge management (KM), there has been interest in a variety of issues surrounding organizational memory (OM), which is understood to involve processes of storage and retrieval of organizational knowledge of the past for use in both the present and the future. The recognition of the importance of OM has implications for practice. For example, Argote, Beckman, and Epple (1990) suggest that the effective use of OM can protect an organization from some of the negative effects of staff loss, while Stein (1995, p. 19) asserts that an appreciation of OM can facilitate the solution of problems associated with the retention and utilization of knowledge within organizations.
The topic of OM has received a great deal of attention from researchers across a wide range of disciplines, most notably organization theory, psychology, sociology, communication theory, and information systems. In a detailed exploration of OM, Stein (1995, p. 17) suggests that “there are three major reasons to explore this concept in more detail: (1) memory is a rich metaphor that provides insight into organizational life; (2) OM is embedded in other management theories; (3) OM is relevant to management practice.”
Most of the literature on OM tends to focus on definitions of the term, the content and types of OM, its location, and the processes associated with the acquisition, storage, retrieval, and maintenance of memory (Walsh & Ungson, 1991; Stein & Zwass, 1995; Casey, 1997). Walsh and Ungson (1991, p. 61) provide an overall definition of OM as “stored information from an organization’s history that can be brought to bear on present decisions.” This corresponds closely with the definition given by Stein (1995), who regards OM as the way in which organizational knowledge from the past is brought to bear on present activities.
Some studies have addressed the role of information technology in developing OM systems (OMS) which support OM processes (Sherif, 2002). Several researchers have highlighted the barriers to the implementation of OMS, the ways in which they might be overcome (Sherif, 2002), and the influence of OM on organizational effectiveness (Olivera, 2000).
OM occupies a significant place within management literature. However, Walsh and Ungson (1991, p. 57) argue that “the extant representations of the concept of OM are fragmented and underdeveloped.” Examination of the existing literature reveals frequent divergence of understanding of the notion of OM (Corbett, 1997). Indeed, earlier researchers (most notably Ungson, Braunstein, & Hall, 1981; Argyris & Schon, 1978) denied the existence of OM. Generally, organizational theorists disagree about a variety of issues surrounding OM. Ackerman and Halverson (1998, cited by Schwartz, Divitini, & Brasethvik, 2000, p. 3) are concerned that a clear and universally accepted definition of what an OM should do appears to be lacking:
After nearly 10 years of research, the term organizational memory has become overworked and confused. It is time for a re-examination. The term is burdened with the practical wish to reuse organizational experience, leading researchers to ignore critical functions of an organization’s memory and consider only some forms of augmenting memory.