Forget Me Not: The Power of Memory and Talent Management

I think I’m losing my mind.

Names often escape me. Information that used to be so available — the useless kind such as the names of all 50 state capitals as well as the useful sort such as where I left my house keys — takes longer and longer to recall, if it comes back at all.

I could blame it on my son. Having a 1-year-old at home is a mind-altering experience. Leaving aside the cumulative effect of the many sleepless nights from his first year, it’s the constant motion and activity that is more to blame. He’s a one-man army constantly probing the weak spots in his parents’ defenses for potential mischief, poking at electrical outlets, crawling into fireplaces, opening kitchen cabinets and pulling at basement doors.

While his constant activity is one factor leading to my scattered mind, it’s by no means the only one. It’s email. It’s texts, TV and the Internet. It’s a busy work schedule and growing family responsibilities. It’s all of the above. As it turns out, it’s evolution too.

Biologically speaking, our fragile memory is a useful adaptation. Imagine how difficult it would be if we retained every bit of information and had to process it each time we had to make a decision. Business would grind to a halt as we all sat at our desks and pondered for hours the best course of action.

Recent studies indicate that sleep plays an important role in pruning our memories, helping our minds choose what to retain and what to discard. Sleep less, retain less. Junior strikes again.

But our ability to remember goes beyond simply getting more Z’s. Its elusive and unreliable nature has fascinated artists, novelists and filmmakers for years. Mark Twain famously said a clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory. “Memento,” one of “Batman” director Christopher Nolan’s early movies, followed a protagonist incapable of retaining any memory as he searches for the person he thinks murdered his wife.

The subject has also fascinated psychologists. I recently came across the work of 19th century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who developed a mathematical formula to quantify memory loss. His forgetting curve, as it became known, showed how memory of newly acquired knowledge is halved in a matter of days unless we make efforts to retain and review it. If left unchecked, we retain only 2-3 percent of that new knowledge after 30 days.

To bring the talent management challenge into focus, think about this math. According to a recent estimate from talent management consultancy Bersin by Deloitte, the average U.S. company spent $706 per employee on training and development in 2012. At organizations with a mature learning and development strategy, the investment was even higher: $867 per employee. Some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic quickly illustrates the significant investment your organization is making in delivering knowledge to employees.

If Ebbinghaus was right, most of that money might be wasted if learners don’t make the effort to retain the knowledge they acquire. And I can just about guarantee most of your workers are just like me: Pulled between ever-expanding responsibilities at work and the demands of a full family life at home. Who has time for knowledge retention?

Technology can play a mitigating role. Google continues to serve as our great knowledge outsourcer in the cloud, collecting and cataloging all the world’s information and making the need for instant recall obsolete. Specialized knowledge management technology like wikis and performance support tools make information available on mobile devices no matter where we are. Collaboration and social networking tools bring us together and help us share information so we can learn from one another and avoid making the same mistakes.

But all that ignores a larger problem. Memory isn’t just a function of remembering dates and information. It’s how we understand the world, grow and maintain relationships and move forward collectively. In organizations, it’s how each of us stays relevant and re-establishes our value to our team members. Without it, we’re adrift.

Creating memory isn’t just a passive function we undertake as we sleep away the night. It’s a conscious thing we need to do each day. That’s something I’m going to try to remember.