Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

An Exploration of Empowerment and Organizational Memory

Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

An Exploration of Empowerment and Organizational Memory

Article excerpt

As business use of information technology (IT) expands, the traditional constraints of time and geography, which were formerly rigorous, are now relaxing or changing. Rapid advances in telecommunication and other information technologies are fostering globalization of economies. As a result, the global marketplace is becoming the new frontier of business. Faced with the rapid pace of change in today's business markets, organizations are compelled to adapt with unprecedented dexterity and flexibility in order to remain competitive and to face the challenges ahead.

As a beginning, organizations need to reassess the types of knowledge and skills needed by their workforce to effectively compete in the marketplace of the future (Fellers, 1993). In addition, they need to learn from successes and failures. Organizational learning is a fundamental requirement for sustained existence (Kim, 1993). Since radical change is extremely hard to accomplish, organizations should be willing to accept failure and learn from it (Caron et al., 1994). Although it may be easier to learn from failure, organizations should have a mechanism to retain what was done correctly as well as what was not (Levitt and March, 1988). Such a mechanism is typically referred to as organizational memory. Organizational memory can be defined as organizational knowledge with persistence (Ackerman, 1994).

Hammer and Champy (1993) have said that empowerment of front-line workers is critical if organizations are to understand core business processes. The reason for this is that frontline workers are closest to those processes and they are probably the only ones who really understand how they work. To reap the full benefit of empowerment, many organizations have chosen to push decision making down to workers who deal daily with core processes. Thus, it appears empowerment is a very important factor in sustained business success. To share and learn from empowerment over time, organizational memory must retain and allow access to the lessons learned.

A powerful mechanism available to most organizations for organizational memory is information technology (IT). Information technology is generally recognized by most managers as a support mechanism for organizational activities (Boynton et al., 1994). However, the ability of IT to facilitate organizational learning and memory has not been as well documented. IT can support organizational memory by making recorded knowledge retrievable or by making individuals with knowledge accessible (Ackerman, 1994). Notwithstanding, an increasingly interdependent and unpredictable business environment has made it impossible for top management to manage the entire repertoire of organizational knowledge. Therefore, workers should be empowered to not only carry out their respective jobs, but to facilitate the accessibility of knowledge. Further, integrative thinking and action should permeate the organization at all levels (Senge, 1990).

The purpose of this study is to explore the relationship between empowerment and the propensity of an organization to retain knowledge. To facilitate our understanding of this relationship we initiated an exploratory field study. Our intention was to visit several organizations and inductively develop a theoretical framework to model the empowerment/organizational memory relationship. The framework classifies organizations along two dimensions: 1) extent that key factors necessary for successful empowerment are implemented, and 2) the propensity of the organization to develop mechanisms to retain knowledge. Data collected from eight organizations allowed us to classify each along both dimensions of our framework.

To provide the necessary background for the classification system, we begin with an outline of current literature in the areas of organizational learning, organizational memory, and empowerment. Following the review of literature, we present our research question and a description of our research methodology. …

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