Transactive memory – changing the way we recall information: good for CRE/FM outsourcing?

Sometimes I read an article and don’t get to the end (low boredom threshold…), and sometimes I have to read it again and think ‘wow, this is really news to me…’. This BBC News science article “Internet’s memory effects quantified in computer study” was one of those that got me thinking….I just had to ‘blog’ it.

If you want to read the full academic paper by Betsy Sparrow and colleagues at Columbia, its titled “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips“, or if you’re a bit lazier like me (!), watch the interview on YouTube.

So, interesting, but what has this to do with us? Quite a lot, it seems, as we are starting to change the way that we use our minds and recall information. We are using our minds a little like a computer with a ‘flash drive’ with plug in external memory. The BBC article states,

“Psychology experiments showed that people presented with difficult questions began to think of computers. When participants knew that facts would be available on a computer later, they had poor recall of answers but enhanced recall of WHERE they were stored.

The researchers say the internet acts as a “transactive memory” that we depend upon to remember for us. In the interview on YouTube, Betsy Sparrow explains that we have always used other people as part of this “transactive memory” – ie., you don’t need to ‘store’ all the answers, but have a network of people whom you know will have the answers – like ‘phone a friend on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Or, more typically, in a workplace, our colleagues and network.

The BBC article continues:

“….the propensity of participants to remember the location of the information, rather than the information itself, is a sign that people are not becoming less able to remember things, but simply organising vast amounts of available information in a more accessible way”.

Dr Sparrow said:

“I don’t think Google is making us stupid – we’re just changing the way that we’re remembering things… If you can find stuff online even while you’re walking down the street these days, then the skill to have, the thing to remember, is where to go to find the information. It’s just like it would be with people – the skill to have is to remember who to go see about [particular topics].”

This makes me think of the corporate real estate or facilities management function, or clearly any corporate function that we may work within.

Organizational memory in CRE & FM

With the usual wikipedia health-warnings, it does contain some definition and links regarding organisational memory. In our organisations, collective memory exists in the organisation’s archives, filing systems, intranet etc…and in the heads of its employees (and I would say, its outsourced service providers).

But if people are becoming intelligent processors, rather than ‘storing’ much of the information they need to do their jobs, is this a change in the nature of work and the employee? And does this in fact make many technical and service delivery jobs potentially more transitory – anyone with the basic knowledge, using ‘transactive memory’, can perform many (most?) tasks?

In CRE & FM, what do we put online, available to the ‘transactive memory’?

Increasingly, in our market sector – management of real estate assets, facilities services and workplace design/change – we are putting more information into the ‘transactive memory’. No longer does the maintenance engineer need to know every building and every system in her portfolio – she has a handheld ‘widget’ that can recall all the asset data and history required to do the job. In fact, I have seen at first hand, such a knowledgeable person being replaced (via outsourcing) with a far more frequent turnover of technicians, reliant on their online/system-based asset schedules and task orders.

OK, thats easier – its technical. But how about the services that cannot be ‘recalled’ via computer-based systems?

When can’t we replace our internally-stored memory with ‘transactive’ memory? When is ‘looking it up’ just no good.

I don’t know the answer! I’m interested in your views on this.

Firstly, I would suggest that the in-house occupier, or ‘intelligent client’ needs to have in-built learned knowledge about the key individuals, departments and functions in the organisation. And a lot about the organisation’s culture and way of doing things. If you are sat in front of the Head of Operations for your company, there are only certain things that it would be acceptable to ‘look up’ from your transactive memory. Too much of this, and the Execs in your organisation would lose confidence in you.

There are certain instant, customer-focused jobs that rely on embedded knowledge also – not transactive memory. Like receptionists? They need to know faces, know what people do, who is important, who to call, etc. What about the Facilities Service Desk? Does it work as well for customers if the operators have little embedded knowledge of the organisation, its people, its buildings and systems? How much can they ‘look up’ on systems, and how much should they retain in their own memory? What about the ‘space planner/strategist’? Again, does this role need the in-built learned knowledge of the intelligent client as above? Probably. Does that mean the role should be in-house? Maybe….what do you think?

Structured, online, transactive corporate memory will be a BIG competitive advantage for outsourced service providers

Thats clear, is it not, from the discussion above? The more that an outsourced service provider can demonstrate that it has a well-structured ‘transactive memory’ to support all its staff on-site, the more the occupier (client) may be convinced that further services could be outsourced.

For example, staff turnover is a problem with FM companies. I spoke to a client recently who had experienced three Account managers inside 12 months – very disruptive, and bad for the outsourced provider’s reputation. But can this be fixed, or at least supplemented, with transactive memory?

How are companies investing in the systems they need to deliver this transactive memory? I would love to know.

regards, Paul Carder, Managing Director, Occupiers Journal Limited

paul.carder@occupiersjournal.com

http://www.linkedin.com/in/paulcarder

Twitter: @occupiers

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2 responses to “Transactive memory – changing the way we recall information: good for CRE/FM outsourcing?

  1. Paul,
    An interesting issue and well suited to debate as there is very little quantitative data to support an easy and absolute conclusion. I can anecdotally add to the account manager turnover story with my own experiences of internal CRE executive churn of an equal or greater pace. Similarly most of the issues you raise are going to be decided based on where an organization wants to end up on a spectrum of conflicting positions: institutional knowledge provided by long serving employees versus innovative pressures from a fresh pair of eyes is but one example.

    I would reposition the challenge you address not as solved by a decision to outsource or to not outsource; but rather as something that requires a thoughtful approach to an outsourcing solution. In any business operation there are three elements of the work effort: tactical delivery (production), management (meeting the production objectives) and leadership of production (what is going to be produced).

    As a part of the tactical delivery, data is generated and then arranged into information that guides the actions and decisions of the other two management components. Where the outsourcing line is drawn in the management layer and how the data is collected, stored and manipulated are all discussions that require greater attention if outsourcing is to be successful and the risks associated with it managed. Modern systems increase the amount of data and the transferability of the data among systems increasing the opportunities and complexity of the issues you raise.

    Successful outsourcing enables the management and leadership greater transparency into the means of production and a longer view of the planning horizon. Transactional memory becomes a risk management concern on data management so that your “call a friend option” never goes away, even if the friend does.

  2. You may be interested in http://thisislike.com – an online transactive memory system, which allows anyone to retain and share their knowledge. It’s still a prototype though…

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