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Institutional memory: lessons from Star Wars for the OfS

Paul reflects on the importance of institutional memory for universities' soon-to-be-regulator, including the lessons to be learned from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
This article is more than 6 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Rogue One, released last year, is a Star Wars spin off story that takes place just before the original Star Wars, covering how the Rebel Alliance obtained the plans to the Death Star. In the film’s key closing sequence, rebels infiltrate the imperial stronghold on the planet Scarif and steal the secret plans that are at the heart of Episode IV and which help Luke Skywalker and friends triumph against the Empire.

But Scarif is not just an Imperial base. It is also the government’s archive, and the final battle of Rogue One takes place in and around a library, albeit one with a really poor cataloguing system (There’s more analysis of the Empire’s records management failings together with other historical archives in this entertaining piece).

Anyway, without wishing to give too much away, the library containing the entire Imperial archive is destroyed and they don’t appear to have a back up anywhere (there are many other unlikely records-related features of the whole Star Wars milieu which others have picked out). It’s possible therefore that this results in a major gap in the collective memory of the Empire which helps account for some of the subsequent challenges they face against the Rebel Alliance.

Why am I going on about Star Wars..?

The point of this slightly off-beam commentary is simply to reinforce that institutional memory really does matter.

One place where institutional memory is going to be extremely important in the years ahead is in the Office for Students. In order to succeed the OfS will need to sustain a strong sense of the history of regulatory developments in the sector. As a brand new organisation the OfS needs to acquire this knowledge both of its pre-history and how things are done. The fact that current HEFCE staff will largely be transferring should provide a significant foundation here as they bring substantial sectoral knowledge.

A year ago when higher education moved into the Department for Education and the many changes and shrinkage within the Civil Service before and after that time mean that the DfE will arguably not be in a great position to provide much extra to the collective memory.

A really good BBC article, which shows the importance of institutional memory, highlights the consequences of the lack of it in the Treasury during the 2008-09 financial crisis:

Each time someone leaves their job, a chunk of the organisation’s memory leaves too. How, then, do you run complex systems, see through long-term projects, or avoid past mistakes?

Short-term contracts and outsourcing reduce the appetite for learning company or product history. And when job losses land, even more knowledge is lost.

In 2012, one institution found that, as City firms poached its bright young employees, its staff turnover was hitting 28% – faster, apparently, than McDonalds.

And for Her Majesty’s Treasury, after its experiences during the financial crisis, this was rather scary.

The Treasury’s outgoing permanent secretary, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, says its young staff are highly knowledgeable but the short time they spend in their posts means they often miss out on the “folk memory”.

This, he says, became very clear to him and to then Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling during the course of the 2008-09 crisis, when they realised “the vast majority of Treasury staff had never been through even a recession, let alone a banking crisis”.

When the run on one of Britain’s biggest banks, Northern Rock, struck in 2007, Sir Nicholas says, the Treasury “might have been able to stop the run, but we were all starting from first principles”.

One of the ways the Treasury has begun to address this is to work with the Policy Institute, based at King’s College London. A PhD student is working on historical records and Treasury staff now attend seminars on the history of their department.

Other examples in a similar vein here include the loss of institutional memory within BP prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and nuclear weapons sector management where – post-Cold War – a lot of historical knowledge was lost due to retirements. Many organisations are, rightly, starting to address their historical records.

Note: This is *yet* to be confirmed as the OfS logo

Individual universities too need this sense of their own history as much as the new Office for Students needs to get the sector. I’ve written here before about the importance of knowing your institutional history and the need for good record keeping, archives, and reminding everyone of the history and context of the organisation.

I’d argue therefore that all of these examples show that institutional memory really does matter, and not just in order to ensure you remember to build your Death Star without too many design flaws.

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