Better legal information

Cumulative Action: How NOT to reinvent wheels

Guest author Benjamin Miller joins us today to talk about strategies to keep institutional memory within your organization.


“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
- Isaac Newton

By providing legal education and information, we invite the public to hop on our shoulders to get a better view of their legal problems. But whose shoulders are we standing on?

The problem: Institutional memory is fragile

Too often, creators of legal information re-invent the wheel with new materials, workshops, or teaching techniques, when there is already perfectly good stuff out there or even within their own organization. Why does this keep happening?

Institutional memory is “a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and knowledge held by a group of people.” The scholar Deborah Gibbons has defined institutional memory as "the stored knowledge within the organization." And just like individuals, institutions can easily forget what they’ve learned.

So you may know about some great resources or teaching techniques, but if it’s all in your head, as soon as you go, it all leaves with you. Even worse, if you don’t communicate what you know to your team while you are still there, your colleagues might re-invent a wheel you just created!

The solution: Cumulative action

In order for your organization to truly grow and your public legal education and information work to get better and better, everybody on your team should see their work as “cumulative action.”

Cumulative action means action that:

  • builds on what has come before
  • sticks around after

Here are some tips on how to turn your work into cumulative action.

Before you get started on a project…

  • ask your colleagues if anyone has done what you’re doing before
  • search the internet for templates, samples, and how to guides
  • become familiar with your organization’s file system so you know where to look for past projects

During the project…

  • name and organize your files and take meeting notes from the perspective of someone five years in the future who wasn’t there
  • create templates when you know a task will be repeated in future
  • keep a document with a running commentary on lessons learned

After the project…

  • tell your colleagues what you’ve learned
  • build 5-minute “workshops” into your team meetings for rapid dissemination

Overcoming the barriers to cumulative action

That’s all well and good. But if it was so easy, why isn’t everyone doing it? Think for a second about all the barriers your clients may face when trying to cope with problems:

  • anxiety
  • distractions
  • intimidation

Recognize that we all face these in varying degrees in our own work:

  • we are anxious about deadlines
  • we are distracted by the many projects we are involved in
  • we find new technology intimidating

The same strategies you use to help your clients overcome these barriers can often help you and your colleagues as well.

Most of all, I want to highlight that cumulative action is just that - cumulative. It does not have to be a major project with a budget and just one more deadline to stress about. In fact, it’s better if it isn’t. Cumulative action is about swapping out bad habits for good ones and learning bit by bit how to share new strategies with your colleagues and new staff.

At the end of the day, we don’t need to be giants. Short or tall, if we learn how to stand on the work of others and help others to stand on our own work, the sky is the limit.

Benjamin Miller was a Donner Fellow at Community Legal Education Ontario in the summer of 2017. He is a Law and Public Policy student at the University of Toronto and helps lead the Charity Law Interest Group, a club connecting law students with the non-profit sector. Benjamin works at CLEO part-time supporting the Get Ready for the ONCA project.