Lest we forget: the importance of corporate memory

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Corporate memory loss is a growing danger for organisations dealing with the ever increasing pace of change. It is vital for organisations to capture and retain safety-critical knowledge.

Anyone who has worked for an organisation that has been involved in a serious accident remembers forever the impact on their and other people’s lives. My involvement in the electricity industry over a 40 year period has taught me the importance of learning from these incidents and retaining that information within the workforce so errors that led to injuries or fatalities are never repeated.

It was with alarm therefore that our industry noticed that during a series of asset management workshops highlighting a number of catastrophic incidents, a large percentage of attendees had no knowledge of robust procedural checks and precautions that had been put in place following such incidents. This highlighted the vital need to maintain corporate memory: health and safety measures need to be accompanied by the background stories that explain their purpose and all staff, particularly those new to the industry, should be reminded on a regular basis.

Corporate memory loss is a growing danger for organisations dealing with the ever increasing pace of change, staff redeployment and outsourcing as well as new owners. It is therefore vital for organisations to capture, retain and remind safety-critical knowledge and experience that informs safe ways of working.

In the electricity industry we are striving to achieve this through Powering Improvement, a major health and safety initiative which was launched, in part, to reinforce the importance of corporate memory in preventing serious accidents. The campaign was borne out of a shared commitment by the energy companies, their trade associations and unions, plus the regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, to promote the highest standards of occupational health, safety and wellbeing that aims to make the UK electricity sector a global leader in health and safety by 2015.

Last year’s focus on asset management and maintenance demanded a willingness and maturity among the partners to share lessons from failures, many with tragic consequences for workers and members of the public who were killed or harmed as a result. Details of such incidents were recorded in Asset Management and Maintenance, Review of Past Incidents booklet, a publication that has been reprinted several times. The production of this booklet demonstrates the sector’s determination to learn from its mistakes.

Powering Improvement recognises the challenges involved, hence the focus this year on human and organisational factors is being led by industry and union champions: Frank Mitchell, the chief executive of ScottishPower Energy Networks, and Mike Clancy, Prospect general secretary.

At a summer Energy Networks Association (ENA) ‘Well Connected’ reception, Mitchell spoke about the need to build corporate memory. “As an industry we face unprecedented levels of change through the dual challenges of new technologies and replacing an ageing workforce. I commend the work undertaken last year in Powering Improvement on asset management and the case studies from many companies. It is critical to share this corporate knowledge and the changing workforce will be a huge risk for all our companies over the next few years.”

Clancy followed with an emphasis on the importance of the relationships underpinning the partnership: “We have a situation where there are huge pressures and challenges but despite these we should celebrate our relationships and the ability to collaborate. It is crucial with our workforce turnover that we hand that baton on. This is our watch and we must not simply be passers-by.”

Complacency has no place; rather, we are committed to a culture of openness that enables staff to report incidents or concerns to help build future success and a shared understanding of safe systems of work. Sharing best practice, agreeing industry standards and ensuring collective memory and continuity are crucial to our path towards being global exemplars.

Peter McCormick is the programme coordinator of Powering Improvement



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