general education,  OU

The role of institutional memory

Brain surgery

A couple of news stories recently made me reflect on the role of institutional memory. The first was the piece in the Guardian bemoaning that ‘unsackable’ staff may be making the roles of others more precarious (Aside: which universities still have unsackable staff?). The second was a news item that people are shifting jobs more frequently now, and that three years is optimal to stay in a post.

I should state up front that I’ve been at the Open University for 22 years now, so this post is in effect is an exercise in self-validation. Particularly at the senior levels, I’ve seen a mixed approach in my time (“I remember when this was all fields”) at the OU. Sometimes it has been largely internal appointees and other times exclusively external appointments. At one point several years ago, no-one in the senior management team had been at the University for more than three years. This creates a disconnect from the history and the culture of an organisation I feel. But equally too internal a focus means an institution can become locked into considering its own structure and history and resistant to changes that are required.

So, no surprise then I favour a mixture at senior level, but also within the organisation the value of institutional memory is underplayed. This is particularly so in times when disruption and radical change are the dominant ideologies. It is worth stressing that people who have been in an organisation for a long time are not necessarily resistant to change, indeed they are often experienced at managing change within the particular constraints of that institution (and they also know what doesn’t work). But much like a sports team or city, an organisation persists beyond its immediate personnel and instantiation. It is a collection of its history, culture and mission, and these persist through the stories it tells about itself and to itself. Continuity through staff and a longitudinal view from some members is thus essential if any organisation is to build a legacy.

That’s my pitch for hanging around anyway.


  • Steve Bamlett

    Hi Martin

    At the very junior level, I find the OU much more frustrating than the reflection in your ‘senior moments’ (apologies to Terry Wogan for the mangling of meaning here :-)). I have taught as an AL for about 3 years but I have found the ‘institution’ at this level resistant to change with a strong belief in ALs in resisting change and, where it can’t be resisted, attempting to ensure change looks much what the ‘ancient regime’ it replaced. The fiasco of the introduction of Group Tuition policy is one such issue. I have never felt so compelled to homogenise teaching and expel no OU matereial from it (in Psychology at least) as this year.

    Sometimes resisatance seems organised around symbols. For instance, the OU once provided all materials in order to protect learners with no access to academic institutions (the vast majority). During those years, it discouraged (from a belief in an equal playing field) use of non-OU materials by its learners. Now the internet and the OU library make these access issues negligible but I still find many colleagues (in Psychology) pressing that only internal OU materials are used. As a learner I found that even in Master’s levels taught courses (took last year) that were not with the ‘Open & Distance Learning’ ambit .At the senior level (at conferences at Miltoin Keynes) this is denied to be the truth but under GTP I see people give exactly this advice directly to learners and it seeps out of the materials provided for AL ‘teaching’ (of the homogenised kind). I have yet to come across an OU learner who isn’t very aware that marks follow loyaltyt to OU materials – though they too sometimes collude in the oppression of that truth in public fora.

    OU-Harvard. A good analysis of it assumptions (especially of Section 7) needs doing and urgently.

    I have always however felt that your take on all these issues has been a saving grace, especially your good sense on the referencing issue. Hence I remain a follower. Keep leading!
    All the best

    • admin

      Hi Steve, I wouldn’t disagree with much of what you’ve said. I’ve fought the argument about non-OU materials for a long time. The GT policy I feel was partly a failure though to listen to those institutional voices who all said it wouldn’t work.

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