Methodological Critique

Organizational Memory Studies: A Methodological Critique

The literature on organizational memory has grown steadily since Walsh and Ungson’s (1991) systematic exposition of the concept. This review concentrates on a limited range of articles following Walsh and Ungson from the major journals in management and organization theory that focus on organizational memory (Anand, Manz, and Glick, 1998; Cohen and Bacdayan, 1994; Kyriakopoulos and de Ruyter, 2004; Moorman and Miner, 1998; Nissley and Casey, 2002; Olivera, 2000). The first section of the paper gives an overview of methodological orientations in this literature, and in the second section it is argued that the concept of organizational memory is limited by its repository, or storage bin image of memory (see Summary Table). The extensive literature on organizational memory in the information systems field is deliberately excluded, although perusing the titles from this literature suggests that the repository image predominates (e.g. Hackbarth and Grover, 1999).

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Methodological Orientations

According to Walsh and Ungson’s definition, ‘organizational memory refers to stored information from an organization’s history that can be brought to bear on present decisions’ (1991, p.61). They proceed to elaborate a model of organizational memory whereby information is acquired and then retained in ‘five storage bins or retention facilities that compose the structure of memory within organizations’ (1991, p.63). These storage bins consist of, individuals, culture, transformations, structures and ecology. In addition, there are external archives that can be consulted, since ‘the organization itself is not the sole repository of its past’ (Walsh and Ungson, 1991, p.66).

The organizational memory literature is not marked by a preoccupation with methodology, and none of the authors under discussion explicitly locate themselves epistemologically or ontologically. Nevertheless, it can said that the literature has a predominantly positivist orientation. Although their article is purely conceptual, Walsh and Ungson (1991) follow the convention of much American-style management theory by setting out seven propositions. Their suggested research strategies all include testing, with reference to systematic falsification or verification through various methods. All of which sounds highly positivistic.

Moorman and Miner (1998), along with Kyriakopoulos and de Ruyter (2004), represent the more positivist strand in organizational memory research. Moorman and Miner’s conceptual paper deals with ‘the impact of organizational memory’ on improvisation in organizations (1998, p.715), and this in turn reflects their highly instrumental managerialist concern with organizational outcomes. They seem to be obsessed with formalizing and measuring both improvisation and memory in order to be able to test their nine propositions. Kyriapkopoulos and de Ruyter (2004) have operationalized Moorman and Miner’s (1998) concepts for their empirical examination of the effect of organizational memory on new product development. They produce measures of different types of memory, information flows, and short-term financial performance of new products in order to be able to examine whether the relationships between these variables support their seven very precise hypotheses. The measures were incorporated into a detailed structured questionnaire that was distributed to 340 firms in the food processing industry, with 136 questionnaires returned.

Cohen and Bacdayen’s (1994) method is closest to the positivistic psychological approach to memory (c.f. Schacter, 2001), in that they conducted a laboratory experiment in which the behavior of subjects was closely observed, and the various types of response were counted and timed. The experiment consisted of a card game with two players who could ‘be seen as miniature organizations with behavior patterns that are organizational routines’ (1994, p.559). They attempt to show how different types of memory can affect the ability to replicate simple routines. By analogy this has implications for the design of organizational routines.

Anand, Manz, and Glick’s conceptual article develops a model of how ‘soft knowledge, such as tacit knowledge, judgement, and intuitive abilities’, might be stored and communicated in organizations (1998, p.797). From their model they suggest implications for information management. They are concerned with how memory can be made available to organization members, but their suggestions are hardly revelatory. For example, they propose that, ‘Socialization processes could focus on introducing newcomers to external information and knowledge holders, and encourage them to maintain the contacts they bring into the organization’ (Anand, Manz, and Glick, 1998, p.805).

Olivera (2000), and Nissley and Casey (2002) are at the more interpretive end of the spectrum in organizational memory research. Olivera (2000) manages to do without propositions or hypotheses as a prelude to examining how organization members access memory of experiential knowledge. Olivera’s research consists of observation and 74 interviews in a multinational consulting firm, from which there are 19 brief but nicely selected illustrative quotes (2000, pp.818-25). Olivera is relatively modest about his findings. For example he is not surprised that respondents evaluated memory systems involving interaction with people more highly than computer-based systems. Although he notes that ‘the results are somewhat surprising when considering that the firm under study employs highly technologically sophisticated individuals’ (Olivera, 2000, p.827).

Nissley and Casey offer little or no explanation of methods in their discussion of ‘corporate museums as a form of organizational memory’ (2002, p.37). They mention several corporate museums, such as the SPAM Museum (p.37), Hershey Foods Corporation’s (p.38), and the Bass Museum in the UK (p.40). But it is by no means clear whether they actually visited any of these museums to make observations, or merely obtained brochures. No references are given for the brochures that are quoted from the SPAM museum. Despite this imprecision regarding methods, and a sloppy approach to the citation of primary sources, Nissley and Casey feel obliged to make four propositions in the style of the more positivistic papers on organizational memory. None of the propositions appear to be testable, and they are certainly not hypotheses of relationships between measurable variables. For example, their first proposition is that, ‘Corporate museums function as a form of organizational memory’ (2002, p.37), which is more of an assumption than a proposition. The apparent felt need for propositions suggests a degree of insecurity about the legitimacy of an interpretive approach to organizational memory.

The Repository Image of Memory

Nissley and Casey characterize Walsh and Ungson’s (1991) image of organizational memory as being a ‘static repository’ (Nissley and Casey, 2002, p.37). Arguably the storage imagery reflects Walsh and Ungson’s managerialist preoccupation with the ‘utility’ of information retrieved from organizational memory for ‘organizational outcomes and performance’ (1991, p.62). Nevertheless, Walsh and Ungson’s repository image, or storage bin model (Wexler, 2002) is accepted largely uncritically in the more positivistic approaches to organizational memory (Anand, Manz, and Glick, 1998, p.796; Cohen and Bacdayan, 1994, p.563; Kyriakopoulos and de Ruyter, 2004; Moorman and Miner, 1998).

Olivera (2000) argues that although the conceptualization of memory ‘in terms of storage bins or retention facilities has proved useful’ (2000, p.813), it has several limitations. He proposes an alternative conceptualization of ‘organizational memory systems’, which are defined as ‘sets of knowledge retention devices, such as people and documents, that collect, store and provide access to the organization’s experience’ (2000, p.815). These systems include social networks and computer-based technologies (2000, p.815). Olivera is interested in whether organization members prefer social networks or computer-based memory systems, and the extent to which organizations should rely on either (2000, p.827).

Nissley and Casey (2002) go further than Olivera (2000) in questioning the storage bin model. They ‘broadly posit that organizational memory may be politicized – that the static repository model where some objectified truth is stored may be contested, also’ (Nissley and Casey, 2002, p.44). They use the example of corporate museums to illustrate the way in which organizations can choose to ‘selectively remember or forget’, and that, ‘What is remembered or what is forgotten shapes an organization’s identity and image’ (Nissley and Casey, 2002, p.44). Their alternative to the storage bin model is to frame organizational memory ‘as a dynamic, socially constructed phenomenon or as a process’ (2002, p.37). Instead of limiting themselves to psychology and organization theory, as most of the organizational memory literature does, Nissley and Casey also draw upon history, museum studies, and sociology (2002, p.37).

The objection to the static repository image of organizational memory seems to be supported by recent work in social psychology and basic neuroscience. According to McCrone’s (2004, p.3) review of this work, the ‘passive warehouse view of memory has been coming under increasing attack’. As Shacter (2001, p.9) explains, the generally accepted view in psychology now is that experiences are recreated or reconstructed rather than retrieved through memory.


Walsh and Ungson (1991) proposed a positivistic, functional, managerialist view of organizational memory, as the storage and retrieval of information that can aid decision making, rather than asking about the meaning of memory for organization members. As a result Walsh and Ungson remain locked into a view of organizations focused on the needs of the moment. They do not appear to recognize that recollection, or imaginative reconstruction of the past, represents much more than merely a functional aid for decision making in the present. Nissley and Casey (2002) appear to be alone in pointing to the cultural and political aspects of organizational memory. Their critique of the storage bin model would be strengthened if they were to make a more explicit break with the ‘paradigmatic lens of organizational memory’ (Nissley and Casey, 2002, p.35). Epistemologically this would entail a critique of the predominant positivism, and ontologically a fuller elaboration of a social constructionist stance as an alternative to the underlying methodological individualism in the organizational memory literature.


Anand , V., Manz, C.C. and Glick, W.H. (1998). ‘An Organizational Memory Approach to Information Management’. Academy of Management Review, 23(4), 796-809.

Cohen, M.D. and Bacdayan, P. (1994). ‘Organizational Routines Are Stored as Procedural Memory: Evidence form a Laboratory Study’. Organization Science, 5(4), 554-568.

Hackbarth, G. and Grover, V. (1999). ‘The Knowledge Repository: Organizational Memory Information Systems’. Information Systems Management, 16(3), 21-30.

Kyriakopoulos, K. and de Ruyter, K. (2004). ‘Knowledge Stocks and Information Flows in New Product Development’. Journal of Management Studies, 41(8), 1469-1498.

McCrone, J. (2004). ‘Reasons to Forget: Scientists Count the Ways We Get It Wrong’. Times Literary Supplement, 30 January, 3-4.

Moorman, C. and Miner, A.S. (1998). ‘Organizational Improvisation and Organizational Memory’. Academy of Management Review, 23(4), 698-723.

Nissley, N. & Casey, A. (2002). ‘The Politics of the Exhibition: Viewing Corporate Museums Through the Paradigmatic Lens of Organizational Memory’. British Journal of Management, 13(Special Issue), S35-S46.

Olivera, F. (2000). ‘Memory Systems in Organizations: An Empirical Investigation of Mechanisms for Knowledge Collection, Storage and Access’. Journal of Management Studies, 37(6), 811-832.

Schacter, D.L. (2001). The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Walsh, J.P. & Ungson, G.R. (1991). ‘Organizational Memory’. Academy of Management Review, 16(1), 57-91.

Wexler, M.N. (2002). ‘Organizational Memory and Intellectual Capital’. Journal of Intellectual Capital, 3(4), 393-1930.

Summary Table


Conceptual or empirical and nature of research

Methodological orientation

Relation to storage image of memory

1. Walsh & Ungson (1991) AMR


Positivist with

7 propositions

Definitive formulation

2. Cohen & Bacdayan (1994) Org Science

Conceptual and empirical, psychological laboratory study of repeated card games

Positivist, akin to experimental psychology

Accepted from psychology, not derived from Walsh & Ungson (1991)

3. Anand, Manz, & Glick (1998) AMR

Conceptual, with policy implications for information systems


Accepted as a metaphor from Walsh & Ungson (1991)

4. Moorman & Miner (1998) AMR


Highly positivist, formalisation of concepts and 9 testable propositions

Accepted uncritically without citations

5. Olivera (2000) JMS

Conceptual and empirical, observation and interviews with 74 managers in multinational consultancy

Interpretive with qualitative data, but not critical towards positivism

Critical of Walsh & Ungson’s storgage bins, prefers organizational memory systems

6. Nissley & Casey (2002) BJM

Conceptual and empirical, observation and documentary analysis of SPAM museum

Interpretive social constructionist, but framed in terms of 4 extended propositions

Repository image contrasted with memory as a socially constructed process

7. Kyriakopoulos & de Ruyter (2004) JMS

Mainly empirical, 136 questionnaires from food processing firms, analysed quantitatively

Highly positivist test of 7 hypotheses, operationalisation of Moorman & Miner (1998)

Storage image accepted uncritically, no criticisms acknowledged

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