Diplomatic services are obsessed with collecting and recording information. While intuitively we may think that the more we remember, the better we can protect our interests, diplomatic services have realised that this rule does not always hold true. In spite of huge digital memories, events, like the recent financial crisis, often take governments by surprise. Cast your mind back a little and remember how, despite the wealth of information and the work of thousands of international researchers, the end of the Cold War came as a surprise for many diplomatic services.
Reams of documents and gigabits of data do not always help in making sound policy decisions. What is missing? Can technical solutions help, or do we need conceptual solutions? Do we simply need better search engines and databases?
The solution lies not only in finding sophisticated ways to search our memory, to remember, but also in finding ways to forget. But not the diplomatic services, surely? Well, think about it. For humans, forgetting is often as important as remembering. By forgetting some of the detail, we can see the situation in a new context and not get bogged down in minutia. Very often, detailed memory prevents us from seeing the broader picture.
In diplomacy, one way of creating ‘institutional forgetting’ is to rotate staff. Diplomats move from one post to another, giving their colleagues the opportunity to revisit existing problems in a different light. In some diplomatic services, negotiation teams are disassembled after prolonged negotiations. Negotiators get too involved and create layers of tacit knowledge and understanding around the negotiated text. By moving them to some other post, we keep the text “as it was negotiated”, while at the same time allow for newer, and sometimes more creative, interpretations.
While diplomatic services will remain ‘memory organisations’, they also need to ‘forget’ from time to time, especially in this digital age. Remember that old tongue-in-cheek definition of a diplomat? Someone who remembers a woman’s birthday but forgets her age. There just might be some truth in it!