JoAnne Yates, a professor of organization studies at MIT, is the world’s foremost, and perhaps only, expert on the history of memos.
“I specialize in studying things that at first glance might sound incredibly boring,” she said. “The challenge is to make them interesting to a broader audience.”
Scandals can certainly help, but given the titles of her papers — “For the Record: The Embodiment of Organization Memory, 1850-1920” — those opportunities have been generally limited.
That is, until the furor over President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey came along.
The revelation that Comey had documented, in memo form, a request from Trump to drop the investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn has injected into the news cycle what one literary critic has called “the humblest yet perhaps the most ubiquitous genre of writing.”
News of Comey’s memo seems like the perfect, and maybe even the first, opportunity to examine the long history and surprising endurance of memo writing in large bureaucracies, even though the memo remains, as Yates wrote in a key 1989 paper, “underrepresented in instructional materials from the time of its origin.”
The paper, titled “The Emergence of the Memo as a Managerial Genre,” examines the economic, managerial and technological forces that shaped the most prevalent form of writing in business and organizational history — a story that spans the history of writing implements, the invention of typewriters and even the World’s Fair.
Before the 1880s, most manufacturing firms were small. The need for written communication was limited to salesmen sending updates on orders or the main office relaying important internal developments to disparate workers. This was accomplished through formal letters.
As companies grew, as railroads expanded, as telegraph use widened, there was “confusion and disorder” in companies, Yates wrote. Buzz phrases of the sort that regularly show up today in HR presentations came along. One was “systematic management.” Managers devised systems. Employees used them.
“The systematizers wanted to depend on an organizational, rather than individual, memory,” Yates wrote, giving rise to “a formal internal communication system heavily dependent on written communication” up and down the employee food chain.
Memos were born. (Later, they would morph into the dreaded “reply all” email monster.) Improvements in technology — the typewriter, carbon paper — led to new jobs (typists) and more memos (a lot more). Where to put all this paper? The answer emerged in 1893 at the World’s Fair in Chicago. (Really.)
“Vertical files,” Yates wrote, “were presented as a system for combining all correspondence (outgoing, incoming, and eternal) in a single, more functional system.”
These files were magical.
“Each tabbed folder of loose papers contained copies of outgoing letters, incoming letters, reports, and internal correspondence, all on the same subject,” Yates wrote. Amazing! “The folders could be arranged and rearranged at will, on the basis of subject, correspondent, number, or geographical region.”
Managers and workers quickly fell in love with this system, realizing they could make a record, via memo, of just about anything. Whatever they wrote would be preserved and easily found forever. This resulted in a lot more memos. Companies soon mandated that they be brief and contain just one subject. Also: a subject line. (Sound familiar?)
By this time, the federal government was swimming in memos, too.
In 1912, President William Taft formed “The Commission on Economy and Efficiency,” which passed on several recommendations in a document titled, “MEMORANDUM OF CONCLUSIONS CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES THAT SHOULD GOVERN IN THE MATTER OF HANDLING AND FILING CORRESPONDENCE AND PREPARING AND MAILING COMMUNICATIONS IN CONNECTION WITH THE WORK OF THE SEVERAL DEPARTMENTS OF THE GOVERNMENT, TOGETHER WITH SUGGESTIONS FOR THE USE OF LABOR-SAVING DEVICES IN PREPARING AND MAILING LETTERS, ETC.”
The recommendations obviously did not include a ban on long titles in all capital letters, but in an effort to cut down on verbiage, thus saving paper and money, the commission suggested that “the salutation and the complimentary close should be eliminated from ‘service’ correspondence; that is to say, correspondence originating in and addressed to offices of the same department and that the title below the signature on such correspondence should be omitted and the title of officials addressed abbreviated.”
This impersonal, informational genre — the memo — will never be given the credit it is due. A memo will never be a letter. There will never be coffee table books of memos.
But their value, then and now, is certain — to maintain a system of collective memory so employees, managers, and FBI directors could record important happenings, the record surviving even when they were gone.
Though she has moved on to other research, Yates is still certain about their shelf life.
“The memo,” she said, “never really leaves. Once in a while, it comes back.”
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