Corporate Amnesia: Deliberately Forgetting Failure Can Be Hard Work

I love this; cruel but fair
I love this – cruel, but fair

The recent VW emissions scandal has brought together two interesting ideas, corporate amnesia and learning from failure.

Instead of learning lessons from failure and retaining them in the corporate memory (so you don’t make the same mistakes in the future), what if organisations adopted the opposite approach?

What if an organisation took action to deliberately forget failure, accidents and mistakes (and wrongdoing); so they were free to repeat the practice in years to come? Deliberate corporate amnesia, sounds a bit unlikely? Do read on……

Corporate Memory Loss. At the moment there’s a fair bit of angst in (some) organisations about ‘corporate memory loss’. You know the sort of thing; a financial crisis appears, and the response is to offer lots of people severance and/or restructure. The result is that people with many years of knowledge, skills and experience walk out of the door, taking with them what gets referred as ‘corporate memory’. The potentially negative effects of this loss of knowledge are fairly obvious, which is a bit strange when you think about how often so little is done to retain some of that knowledge.

Shelves full of (failed) products at GfK Custom Research
Shelves full of (failed) products at GfK Custom Research – aka The Museum of Failed Products

When you combine this organisational loss of knowledge with learning from failure things get interesting.

The Museum of Failed Products (which I’ve mentioned before) is a good example. Basically its vast collection of consumer products produced over the last 40+ years. All neatly arranged on the shelves of a huge facility in Anne Arbor, Michigan, it serves as reminder that most new consumer products (8 out 10 it’s claimed)  don’t succeed.

A secondary feature is the ‘rediscovery of lost corporate memory’. Apparently it’s not uncommon for a Product Developer/R&D Scientist; new to ‘Company X’ (and bursting with ideas) to browse the shelves and ‘discover’ that Company X tried that product idea 10 years ago, and it was a complete failure. A classic piece of corporate amnesia.

IMG_4243Meanwhile at Emissions Test Center…. Bringing things right up to date it turns out that VW aren’t exactly strangers to the world of engine emission ‘defeat devices’. Way back in 1973 they ran into trouble with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for using emission defeat devices.

Megan Geuss has written a fascinating article in Ars Technica UK, ‘Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal has a long, complicated history’, which brings together all the key facts. To be fair to VW, they weren’t alone in this sort of practice (but you probably suspected that anyway).

The picture above, with ‘defeat devices’ written in the margin is from the 1973 EPA press release, well worth a look.

The point is, that in 1973 VW were involved in activities that have a very similar odour to the emissions cheating scandal that has happened 42 years later. Did they learn nothing from 1973? Have they forgotten the (‘not an admission of guilt’) payment of $120,000 they made to the EPA?  Surely, there must be some story about ‘1973 and the EPA’ floating around VW? There must be some crusty old engineer lurking in an obscure department that remembers it well? Apparently not………

Forgetting is Hard Work. As it turns out there may be a phenomenon of deliberate ‘forgetting’ in some organisations. Researchers (Sebastien Mena et al) at The Cass Business School in London have written this paper ‘On the Forgetting of Corporate Irresponsibility’ which gives a through analysis. If you fancy something shorter have a look at ‘VW and the never-ending cycle or corporate scandals’ from the BBC. Professor Andre Spicer at Cass is also worth looking at on twitter (@andre_spicer)

What this all boils down to is that it takes hard work and some determination to ‘forget’ a corporate scandal. The table below provides a helpful (non academic, very loosely based upon what I’ve been reading) summary. Do see if you recognise anything from organisations you have worked in.


Remember, all of this ‘forgetting’ this takes time and quite a bit of deliberate effort – it doesn’t feel like something that happens by accident. So, you have to ask the question, “Is it worth the effort?”

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Corporate memory exists and can have a negative as well as a positive effect.
  2. ‘Forgetting’ corporate memory requires a deliberate effort, and I would suggest it probably isn’t worth it in most cases.
  3. Better to remember the lessons, to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

3 Responses

  1. Many state schools practice this with great aplomb. Every time a primary school gets a new Headteacher it’s like Pol Pot’s year zero. There is a complete new start with almost everything changed and no one ever mentions anything that ever happened – good or bad – under the previous regime.

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