Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 226
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Group Memory

Research reveals the benefits of group memory and ways managers can use it.

My son's voice was irritated last August when I questioned him about several boxes of textbooks from his undergraduate classes he was packing away for graduate school. "Dad," he said, "I don't know anything! I only know where to find information in my books, so I've got to take them." I was surprised, and I didn't believe him, but I appreciated his honesty.

A few days later I was reminded of this conversation when I reviewed the research of Diane Rulke from the University of Minnesota. She studies group memory in organizations, and I was struck by the parallels between it and my son's reliance on his books. Group memory uses similar principles and it is very useful to work groups.

Group memory occurs naturally in groups that share experiences. For example, if a husband and wife visit a new home with a Realtor and hear exactly the same sales pitch, each remembers some facts very well and others not so well. The husband will remember facts that fall in his areas of expertise, and the wife will do the same.

After leaving the Realtor, both the husband and wife will be able to retrieve information from the memory of the other person. If a question arises, it will be labeled as to whose area it is, and then that person will provide the answer.

Research over the last 13 years has explored the usefulness of group memory for work groups, and Diane Rulke has made two contributions. In one study, she provided identical training to individuals and to work groups, and then she measured differences in their work performance. The groups that worked together and trained together used naturally occurring group memory to store and retrieve the information from the training, just as the husband and wife did in the real estate example, and it was a great help to them. Their performance was superior to work groups whose members received the same training individually.

In her most recent study, Rulke explored the first step in forming a group memory, a step she called encoding, and she described ways we can help work groups complete it.

First on her list is to keep people together in their work groups or teams when we train them. This joint training provides the shared experience that is required for group memory to emerge.

Next, Rulke suggests we pay special attention when assignments of expertise are made in the group. Naturally, this occurs when some people claim expertise by stating that they have a special knowledge or interest in an area. For example, imagine a sales meeting concerning geographical regions that a company hopes to serve with a new product. Now imagine one member speaking up and saying that he/she has lived in one of these areas for many years. That person has claimed expertise and the group will expect this person to remember information about this region and to be able to recall it for the other members.

Another way expertise is claimed is by showing interest in an area. In the above example, a person showing an interest in one region would find himself/herself assigned the task of being the expert for that area.

Finally, work groups assign expertise, and this is where managers can help. Group memory fails when expertise assignments don't cover all the information a group needs to manage, so managers should insure that this doesn't happen. In the above example, managers can structure information to match areas of expertise, for example, one geographical area for each person, and they can assign any areas not claimed.

We can also help by making sure information is labeled correctly when it is presented to the group: "O.K., this information concerns your area, Joe."

Group memory helps groups of people manage large amounts of information, and it helps them resist acting without sufficient information. Members know who is good at what, and they seek information from the right person.

Reference: Rulke, Diane and Devaki Rau (1997) Examining the Encoding Process of Transactive Memory in Group Training. Academy of Management Best Paper PRoceedings from the Fifty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, 349-353.

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