Corporate memory often frazzles. Institutional memory is a fragile and devious thing.
Institutions often last much longer than individuals who establish, maintain, and inherit them. Educational institutions can outlast even governments and dynasties. Institutions are sustained by successfully including an influx of new leaders. This is best when it is incremental, allowing new leadership to absorb the accumulated knowledge and unique traditions, as well as the memories of trends, events and people in the past. Meanwhile, institutions need to keep up with the times. An incoming CEO or president has a delicate line to walk between aggressively pursuing change that may have been delayed and alienating significant persons whose commitment has been refined to focus on institutional aspects the new leadership is marginalizing.
In pondering my status in the institutions with which I have been involved over the past 70 years, it is clear that I am now largely irrelevant to most of them now. Whenever I contact them or even show up on their campuses I am initially a stranger. Only the buildings feel like I might belong there, and usually not even them. Since I am outside those institutions, for all intents and purposes, I feel free to offer some advice.
Few events that an institution experiences are dramatic. Institutions are developed one tiny increment and one decision at a time. In fact, spectacular events tend to be destructive ones that threaten the institution. Recovery is then the institutional task, and that means getting back to the tedious tasks of making little decisions. Those rarely restore what used to be.
I remember one day after we re-constructed and re-dedicated the First Presbyterian Church of Alton, IL. The wife of the long-time former pastor was invited to visit as a chapel was dedicated in her husband’s name. She was not appalled at the changes we had brought after the fire had destroyed everything, but she let me know this was no longer the same church of which she had been a key member for a quarter of a century. The building was strange to her eyes, even if many of the people were not. Now most of those people are gone, too, as is she I understand. A couple of years ago I went back to that church after nearly a quarter of a century and the building felt the same, but the people, for the most part, were not. The programs were also different.
Payap University, with which I have been associated in one way or another since 1965, has had 5 fully installed heads with the title president. Each brought a clear vision about what the university might become. Those visions were of Payap being a leading liberal arts institution, then as a new president took over the goal was for the university to develop into a comprehensive university, and more recently the president’s vision was for Payap to be the best international university in the region. None of those visions was fully achieved before perceived realities prompted it to be abandoned in place of a new vision. In the process, of course, a vast amount of institutional knowledge was rendered obsolete. Some of that wisdom stood in the way of progress.
Last month I had lunch with a long-term university insider. His conclusion is that there is an institutional bias against change. Many universities and colleges stay with whatever they have always done even when it is no longer working, and spiral into oblivion (that is, usually, into economic un-viability). In other words, a large institution is too unwieldy and settled to adapt to change.
On the surface, that seems to contradict my contention that institutions have trouble retaining institutional memory. However, I have noticed that resistance to change is not the same as institutional memory. The source of institutional conservatism is usually the collective will of institutional operatives to retain the positions and conditions they have worked to acquire. What is a German language instructor to do if German language courses are dropped from the curriculum? It is only natural that the instructor will try to avoid that. The institutional visionary, on the other hand, is exerting equal energy in proposing some bright alternatives to operations that have become unproductive or obsolete. The institutional historian is neither of these. The historian collects and remembers specifics, dates when decisions were made and reasons for those decisions, the gestalt of key moments in the institution’s history, the names and methods of operation of individuals who got major objectives achieved, and most of all what is the institution’s heart and soul.
It is not unusual for each one of those three functionaries, conservators, innovators, and historians, to see the other two as obstructive. Of course, each of them is valuable if they work together. How to get that happy compatibility is a challenge. Conservators are not simply interested in self-preservation; they are institutional ballast without whom the institution would founder whenever it encounters sufficient turbulence. Innovators are most effective when they can demonstrate that new initiatives have already worked, and can incorporate the aspirations of the institution as well as the wider community and customers (by whatever name). Historians must be narrators who are so skillful that when they speak the institution listens, so they need to be the ones most often in the pulpit or on the platform when the institution gathers to ponder itself.
It is by the cumulative weight of countless decisions that the institution has gotten where it is. It will take countless decisions, each one of them of little apparent consequence, to get the institution to where it is going to be.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.