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Oral history as business intelligence

Oral history attempts to extract business value from the recollections of an organization's key leaders and top performers, and it is a potentially useful resource for business intelligence.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

One of the key considerations we use to determine whether something can be classified as business intelligence (BI) is whether it is useful in terms of making decisions. If we can put information to use in choosing courses of action, clearly it is business intelligence. Usually we look for business intelligence by analyzing structured data in our data warehouses and data marts, or we use data mining software and neural nets to look for hidden patterns in large volumes of data. The goal: to uncover actionable information and/or insights about our business. Even so, there is another potentially useful resource for business intelligence that we have not yet looked at in any rigorous way: the oral history of our enterprises. 

Oral history attempts to extract business value from the recollections of an organization’s key leaders and top performers. It generally takes the form of short recorded anecdotes from senior enterprise personnel. If it’s carried out well, it invariably yields important lessons for managing the organization – and particularly its human capital.

A great deal of enterprise knowledge is embedded in the minds and memories of individuals who work at a given enterprise. Collectively, this tacit knowledge comprises the institutional memory of the organization. This is as true for the federal government as it is for private enterprises. The presence of this hidden resource, in fact, arguably holds even more value for the government, as the public sector faces a potentially massive departure of civil servants in coming years.

As more and more experienced government leaders retire, an oral history approach can point the way to a practical strategy for preserving much of the expertise – both tacit and explicit – of proficient agency contributors before they leave public service forever.

In fact, we believe that the agency that doesn’t act now to prepare for the graceful integration of rich media (e.g., searchable text, imagery, audio, video, etc.) into its recruiting programs – not to mention into its organizational development and operational culture – may well be left behind in the inevitable competition to keep its teams at full strength and to ensure that Generation Y performers are satisfied and productive.

In the federal realm, an institutional memory project should center on the retention of useful operational knowledge and agency lore that would otherwise be lost, but it can also serve as an instructive first foray into the use of rich media in the agency’s human capital activities. This is highly valuable in its own right. Digital multimedia is an entirely familiar mode of expression among Gen-Y employees – and arguably the prevalent mode among the twenty-something candidates that have to be recruited to sustain mission performance during and after the coming retirement exodus.

We recommend that an oral history project unfold in two stages: capture and outcomes. In the capture phase, one-on-one interviews are conducted with selected subjects and recorded as digital audio files. The interviewer’s questions focus on the subject’s experiences on the job, and on his/her recollections of key lessons learned, turning points, crises and so on. It should be obvious that there’s a strong strain of personal narrative here; but the overall result, as more subjects contribute their recollections, is a core corporate memory base.

Incidentally, while it is tempting to start capturing institutional memory with a video-based approach, the need for simplicity and efficiency is critical, especially for an agency with only limited experience with rich media modes. Video certainly figures prominently in rich media practice today – consider YouTube and the growing trend among online advertisers and news outlets to embrace “user-generated” content. Even so, incorporating video can overly complicate a prototype institutional memory effort. Simply stated, it tends to intimidate project sponsors. Moreover, the staffers interviewed on video may express themselves too self-consciously and formally, sacrificing plainspoken immediacy and sometimes accuracy.

The outcomes phase should identify the tangible positive results of the interviews. The first deliverable is usually a report/presentation summarizing the general themes prominent in the interviews, an interpretation of the participants’ viewpoints toward their on-the-job experiences, and their recommendations for the agency’s future.

The second deliverable might be a catalog of transcribed agency narratives (text versions) organized by theme, activity and other key terms. This repository is indexed and transformed into a searchable database for both the textual narratives as well as the audio versions. Thus, it will be able to provide reusable content that can be put to many uses as citations touching on corporate culture at the agency. These would include the full range of print publications and presentations such as annual and quarterly reports, strategic plans, Congressional testimony, branding and promotional content, recruiting and retention pieces, and so on.

This database becomes another crucial source from which to extract business intelligence. Yes, you can tag the content along thematic lines that can be used for text mining; you can do semantic analysis of specific content if relevant (e.g., how many times have interviewees mentioned some project, incident or technology?); and/or you could map these to relevant imagery to be used in communications, branding or messaging.

Business intelligence may also be extracted by identifying and tallying positive and negative quotes from the interviews and correlating them with outcomes for time periods or geographic regions. Last, but not least, alignment between an agency’s business strategy and the functional strategy of its varied staff offices, bureaus or components is a critical consideration. The analysis of these narratives should also provide an agency with an important new source for reviewing alignment and studying the causes of potential misalignment.

All in all, capturing institutional memory through oral history appears to offer a productive new source of business intelligence. In the federal government, where approximately one out of every two civil servants will be eligible to retire this year, oral histories should be considered an essential activity to be mandated at every level. 

About the authors:

Dr. Ramon C. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations. Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

Bob Duffy leads Brand Vistas, a consultancy in branding and organizational culture based in Columbia, MD. A former global ad agency vice president, Bob has implemented his Value Platform brand development methodology for scores of organizations in both the private and public sectors, among them the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Verizon Communications, InteliStaf Health Care, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), among many other clients. Bob has also led organizational development, knowledge management, research, diversity and creative outreach projects for the ITT Corporation, the Siemens Corporation, the Brown Shoe Company, the World Bank, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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