What Companies Can Learn From the U.S. Memory Championships

Building your organization’s memory palace.


B Mac

3 years ago | 5 min read

How much time did you waste by trying to figure out the processes left by a person who left your company abruptly? How many indecipherable spreadsheets did you have to work on daily? How many pages of useless and confusing process documentation did you have to go through in your career?

According to the Work Institute Retention Report, in 2018, 41.4 million U.S. workers voluntarily left their jobs. Employee voluntary turnover exceeded 27%. As people become less loyal to their companies and seek more significant opportunities elsewhere, employers are left with a big issue, managing the lost knowledge.

Companies spend countless money and time due to faulty knowledge management

Business gurus always sold documentation as the holy grail in terms of knowledge management. But how many companies do it with excellence? In my experience, most companies I worked for had a short handover period, if any, and the documentation consisted of Word documents spread out folders all-around their network drive.

The majority of records were written years ago and with outdated or redundant processes. It is the equivalent of Hangar 51 at Raiders of the Lost Ark. A warehouse filled with boxes containing a mixture of garbage and precious items, without a map to help us find it.

Frustrated by the effort and unable to understand the complexity in front of us, we end up going another way and just redoing everything from scratch.

This faulty methodology is how companies spend countless paid hours by rebuilding processes and controls repeatedly. Apart from this, there is a significant amount of knowledge on the business. Intricacies get lost along the way.

I worked for a company that was going through a restructure and watched as they fired long-time employees in detriment of young blooded talents. I watched desperately as all that knowledge walked out the door, slamming it behind it. And prepared to try to understand what they left behind or information hidden forever in their precious emails.

Companies can do their best to prevent turnover, and that solving the issue at the source is usually the best solution. Yet, turnover will still exist, and there are healthy and sustainable levels. The reality is that organizational knowledge can’t rely on people staying immobile. Not only do people leave, but it happens that they move around with promotions, and many don’t want to be disturbed continuously on topics related to their old job.

According to the Panopto Workplace Knowledge and Productivity Report, the average large U.S. business loses $47 million in productivity each year due to inefficient knowledge management.

It also states that U.S. knowledge workers waste 5.3 hours every week, either waiting for vital information from their colleagues or working to recreate existing institutional knowledge. It translates into delayed projects, frustration among its workforce, and a significant impact on the profits.

Codification vs. personalization strategies

Companies that rely heavily on knowledge as a product might hold the answer to that issue. Management consulting firms not only can’t afford to lose their experience, but they also encourage turnover, with many of their rising starts moving to executive positions in their clients. These firms have two main approaches to knowledge storage: codification or personalization strategy.

As an example, Ernst & Young have pursued the former. Over the years, they developed elaborate ways to codify, store, and reuse knowledge. It is codified by employees using a “people-to-documents” approach, extracting the knowledge for whoever holds it, made independent of that person, and reused for various purposes. It is the traditional “word document” strategy.

Other consulting firms such as Bain, Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey emphasize a personalization strategy. They focus on connecting individuals, not building databases. McKinsey has a repository of partners’ email addresses for other associates to access sectors that they excelled quickly. It makes it very personal, but it relies again on people.

What can we learn from the memory champions and their palaces

Organizational knowledge also can be looked at through another set of lenses. We can frame it as the organization’s memory. In 2014, journalist Joshua Foer wrote an article on the U.S. Memory Championships. Foer marveled at how people that were not geniuses by any metric could memorize the order of a 52 card deck in less than a minute.

Their strategy was simple: they built their memory palaces. Memory palaces are usually composed of a place we know inch-by-inch and can remember the smallest details, like the smell or texture.

As you walk through your memory palace, you transform abstract items, like a random letter, into an event or person into your memory palace. You make dull and abstract elements become vivid situations and objects in your head. Foer went on to train his memory and became a U.S. Memory Champion himself.

Independently of using a codification or personalization strategy, companies could follow the cue given by American memory champions and build their Institutional memory palaces. It could be a fun physical meeting room filled with mementos of essential processes and bits of knowledge. All teams could always point out three points that were key to the meeting and need to be remembered and attach them to a physical object. If the session has nothing to be remembered, then the organizer should have scrapped it in the first place.

It follows a “codification” storage, but it also relies on human interaction and knowledge sharing. It makes sure people are retaining the knowledge and sharing and storing in a physical object in some sense. Documentation should also follow but in a simplified, direct way. You help people’s short-term memories while also saving it for the long-term.

Many software programs are also trying to achieve this. Microsoft Teams has a Wiki function. Company communicator Slack indexes and organizes conversation as projects, taking the risk away from people’s inboxes.

Helpjuice has customization tools that let people design every aspect of your knowledge base — including styling options that make layouts more user-friendly to readers.

Still, we need to treat organizational management as our memories and not only diligently catalog and write, but making it fun and easy to remember, Our fun recognizable memory palaces. The best way would be to combine the “memory items” too simplified virtual mementos with a piece of simplified documentation attached to it.

Make it fun and build a memory palace for your organization

Solving knowledge management might be the key to reducing the frustration and burnout that so many employees go through when they start at a new job or have a turnover within their team. By framing it as a fun activity on memorization, we could feel less like Indy looking for the Ark of the Covenant at Hangar 51 and a bit more like our 13-year-old self getting lost and mesmerized in our first visit to Disneyland.

More realistically, something in between. If we can get this piece right, we will increase the bottom line, employee engagement, and, paradoxically, decrease employee turnover.


Created by

B Mac







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