I have a pretty unreliable memory. Far too often I find people saying to me, “I told you this already!” or “we had this exact conversation!” I also tend to rely on other people to remember things for me a lot. I bet you don’t know how often you do the same thing. Actually, group transactional memory, the process of storing information in other people’s heads, is more common than I had realized.
Group transactional memory means storing memories in other people’s brains, but the process is more complicated than it sounds (and decidedly less creepy). As we take in new information, we assign certain parts to other people, often based on their expertise or interest. Then, we tend to check in with them about their memories—both to make sure they’re storing the information, and to help us remember who knows what. Here’s an example of how it might work:
Let’s say you’re going on holiday with a friend. They’re good at directions and remembering addresses, but you’ve been to this destination before and they haven’t. So you might put them in charge of remembering the address of your accomodation and how to get there, while you remember which areas are safe, or fun to explore, and how to get around. As you prepare for your trip, you might ask your friend where your accomodation is a couple of times (“What suburb are we staying in, again?”)—this reassures you that they’ve stored that information so you don’t have to.
We tend to do this subconsciously, especially with a spouse or close friend we spend lots of time with. You can see the process take place more obviously in a group training scenario, where there’s an incentive to remember all the information being imparted. Group members will tend to take on particular roles, remembering information relevant to their expertise or assigned position. Everyone then works together to remember all of the information.
An important part of group transactional memory is remembering who knows what, so that when it comes time to retrieve the information, we can prompt the right people.
You might think of group transactional memory like a computer network: information is stored in different places across the network depending on who’s the most appropriate person to remember it. It’s then retrieved by prompting the right person.
If you have a great memory, you’re probably wondering why we bother storing memories in other people. It actually has some surprising benefits. Apart from the obvious fact that it can extend your individual memory, it’s also been shown to improve employees’ job satisfaction when used in the workplace.
Employees tend to rate their team’s performance and teamwork higher when they use group transactional memory at work. Even external group evaluations rate performance and attainment of group goals higher in teams that share memories.
Group transactional memory is best used when you’re taking in information as a group, such as a briefing with a client, a meeting or a training session. To put this to use, try learning in groups, particularly when learning a new technique or technology that can be broken down into different parts.
Assign information based on expertise for the best chances of everyone remembering their part. Playing into people’s natural interests and experience will make it easier for them to remember the information and for everyone else to remember who to retrieve it from later.
Lastly, make sure you check in with each other often during the learning process. Questioning each other prompts recalling (and strengthening) the memories already made and helps everyone in the group to remember who knows what.
Now that I know how to make use of this in group learning situations, I can relax a little about my unreliable memory. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I’m left to my own devices, though…