Institutional memory and its benefits in dentistry

Cemal Ucer discusses the ephemeral benefits of institutional memory – and the more immediate advantages of mentors within dentistryCemal Ucer discusses the ephemeral benefits of institutional memory – and the more immediate advantages of mentors within dentistry.

Learning is critical to any endeavour: without learning we cannot improve ourselves.

But it is far more efficient to learn from other’s mistakes and triumphs than to repeat the same trial and error yourself. Wherever possible, it is pragmatic to learn on someone else’s time.

Institutional memory is a term that describes the accumulated knowledge and experience of a given group.

As a very basic example, if you join a new workplace and a colleague clues you into something that’s not written down anywhere, that is an example of institutional memory being shared.

This information can be anything from the comparatively trivial to the absolutely vital. British culture is perhaps particularly fond of this sort of informal information transfer, with even rules and conventions regarding how the government conducts its business going unwritten to this very day, while still being seen to carry legal weight.

Arcane knowledge

Unfortunately, this sharing of information depends on interpersonal communication rather than a document that can be referenced. This can make important information inaccessible, ambiguous and arcane. It can create an environment of insiders ‘in the know’ separated from everybody else.

However, this should not cast institutional memory as inherently negative – it arises organically and under most circumstances is very beneficial.

The sharing of institutional memory can really help bridge the gap between where formal education ends and job competence begins. Information between contemporaries can often be shared more quickly and efficiently than by any other means. For example, by perpetually checking a group of centralised documents that would inevitably become unwieldy and bloated with minutiae.

It is simply not feasible for the accumulated knowledge of one generation to be fully recorded. This is especially the case when they can be more efficient in bringing younger colleagues up to speed through a more judicious sharing of information (for instance, there is little to no need to discuss obsolete methods and practices).

Information sharing

The Achilles’ heel of institutional memory is a break in communication. This is often caused by insufficient contact between younger colleagues and their predecessors. It takes time for this type of exchange of knowledge to occur. Without that time, hard-won lessons are forgotten and must be learned all over again.

As already mentioned, it is still far more efficient to learn from the mistakes and successes of the past than to repeat them every generation.

But sharing information within the dental field via institutional memory – especially after the completion of initial education – is more challenging than in many other career paths.

We could describe our field as deep but narrow; there is much to learn but we have comparatively limited contact with colleagues during our professional lives. Particularly with those who have specialised.

Even where this contact does occur, the reality is that it may not present the right opportunity to impart some wisdom, or for it to be appropriate to pick a colleague’s brain.

Targeted assistance

Finding a mentor can be profoundly helpful. Not just in ameliorating this problem, but also for answering questions you didn’t realise you needed to ask. A textbook or paper can, at best, predict a question a typical reader may have, but it cannot react to specific needs and situations.

Good mentors don’t just invite questions: they can see what their mentee needs to know and provide targeted assistance. More experienced mentors will also have built up many favourable relationships and contacts over the years. If a given subject is outside their own range of expertise, this enables them to put you in touch with others who can help you.

During turbulent times it can be tempting to bunker down. But surviving isn’t thriving and those who find opportunity amidst obstacles go further.

Where possible, the best option is to grow yourself out of a crisis. Investing your time in developing your skills and knowledge is always a wise decision. This is never more true than when things look less certain.

For more information on the PG Cert in Implant Dentistry from Ucer Education – supported by Geistlich, Megagen, Neoss, TRI Implants and General Medical – visit or email [email protected].

Get the most out of your membership by subscribing to Dentistry CPD
  • Access 600+ hours of verified CPD courses
  • Includes all GDC recommended topics
  • Powerful CPD tracking tools included
Register for webinar
Add to calendar