Head Shake – Institutional Memory
Years ago, I had a boss who kindly informed me one day that everybody was expendable. I accepted that as gospel at the time, though I eventually came to find out that it’s absolute nonsense.
When I started work at the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), I was utterly convinced I was the luckiest guy in the world. I had worked in bike shops, a friend and I had run a bike shop on the side and made decent money, and I had been racing for several years. But working for the AMA? Unbelievable. Alright, it might not be a cool-guy California magazine, but still, can you beat this?
Granted, the initial job might not seem all that glamorous, I was working in the Government Relations Department (GRD), but I had a legal background, I was certainly enthusiastic about bikes, and it made sense. When I showed up, my boss, Robert Rasor, laid out a simple roadmap forward. Rob had been working government relations issues for the AMA since the 1970s. Basically, I had my daily chores and a pile of Federal Registers to catch up on to make sure there were no regulatory changes coming down the pike that would impact motorcyclists, but there was one more thing: Read the entire contents of our file cabinets.
I have to say, I really didn’t understand that at first. The file cabinets? I went out and looked at them. I opened a drawer up, then another, and I’m not going to lie to you, my first thought was, “Good God, this is a lot of shit.”
Here is what I didn’t understand at the time and Rob did – he had found the fastest way to get me up to speed on the issues we would confront. Because most all of them are cyclical, there is nothing new under the sun, or very little anyway. He was looking at the fastest way to tune me up on what our job entailed.
To aid me in this education, he pointed out his secretary, Cathy Brown. Cathy had been with the AMA since it was headquartered in Columbus, which is to say when that nice Harley fella teamed up with that Davidson guy and built a bike in their garage. Cathy knew where everything was, largely because she had placed it there. There are two people in this world that know where everything is, one is my wife, the other is Cathy, and they are both wonderful women. Cathy and Rob were the personification of institutional memory in the best sense of the phrase.
So, okay, Rob tells me to read files? I read files. And something began to emerge. I started seeing patterns, the same issues surfacing over and over again: Helmet laws, bike bans, noise restrictions, on and on. Then I learned how we had combated them in the past.
I tripped across the work of a gentleman named Gary Winn. Gary had worked for GRD in the 1970s and early ’80s, and he was a statistical guru. The arguments he would construct were persuasive and very clever. More importantly, they were truthful. Gary was getting to the truth. It was like a lightbulb came on. There was no need to reinvent the lightbulb; I needed to reverse engineer the lightbulb and apply it to what was then present day. And I did.
I didn’t know it at the time, because I was not one to reflect on things of this nature back then. It was all I could do to figure out how to get good at my job, but Rob and Cathy were imparting me with the institutional knowledge of what it was to properly represent motorcyclists and the AMA Government Relations Department. Somebody else had paid the price in years and experience to amass that knowledge, I was merely a beneficiary, and I suppose to some extent, so were motorcyclists in years to come as we pursued our mission. Rob made it very clear from the outset; “We are a member-driven organization. We exist for our members. They are our first priority.”
I got the message. I also got lucky. I was racing the whole time I was working there and ultimately got a great opportunity from the magazine guys. They had gotten an invite from Kawasaki to go to Laguna Seca for a new bike launch, but they had a small problem. They didn’t have any knee draggers on staff. Bill Wood, the managing editor of the magazine, knew, or believed he knew, I could do the cool guy, knee on the ground, don’t pitch the manufacturer’s bike in the corner thing, but he had no idea if I could write at all. They had passed these invites up for years, and they wanted to accept this one. So, I got drafted to go.
Try to imagine my elation. I’m going to Laguna Seca to run around the track on the newest Kawis – you have to be kidding me! So, I showed up in my scuffed-up club racing leathers, and Scott Russell was there, who I knew from his Solmax endurance racing days with WERA. We shot some pool in Carmel, Keith Code chain smoked half my Marlboros, it was a dream come true. They put us up in a luxury golf resort. The room had a loofah in the shower; I wondered who stuck a Post Shredded Wheat biscuit in my bathroom. The story worked out surprisingly well. Somehow, I ended up with a new job with the magazine.
Once again, I had no idea what I was doing. I needed some more of that institutional memory whipped on me, and I got it in the form of Bill Wood, my managing editor, pain in the ass, and good friend. Bill knew the history of the Association from beginning to end, he knew the history of anything on two wheels, and he was a walking AP Stylebook – I didn’t even know what an AP Stylebook was. Most of all, he was a good teacher and mentor. I knew the law and the legislative process, so I started the split-personality life of dragging knees for the magazine and covering all the legal and legislative developments that might affect motorcyclists for American Motorcyclist, as well.
Wood came up with an idea for the Association’s 50th anniversary. He wanted to do a compare and contrast between a pre-production Suzuki TL1000 and a 1947 Indian Chief. I suppose he wanted to show in a very tangible way how things had changed in 50 years, but I was rather dubious. A Chief? If you squint maybe it makes sense, but what the heck, sure, you’re the boss, let’s do it. So we did.
We pulled this beautiful 1947 Indian from the museum, sent it down to A.D. Farrow’s Harley-Davidson shop in Columbus to be fully serviced, and brought it home. The idea being Bill would ride the Indian and compare it to a modern V-Twin. That’s great, but there was a small problem: you can’t ride a bike you can’t start.
When we pushed the bike out back in the company parking lot, half the office emptied out. Everyone wanted to see it run. Wood tried to start the bike; No-go. Greg Harrison tried to start the bike; Nada. Half the magazine staff started bouncing up and down on the kick starter; Nothing, zero, not the faintest sign of life. I was standing there with Gil, our graphic artist dude, while it was getting flat-out embarrassing. We looked like a bunch of bozos there. That was enough, I’d had it.
“Go get Boyce,” I muttered to Gil. Gil is not one to take orders from anyone, so I babbled it louder, “GO GET BOYCE! He used to race these things!” Bill Boyce started racing when the Marshall Plan was a pipe dream.
So, somebody did. Boyce emerged from the office all smiles, which was pretty much his general demeanor daily. What happened next was just wonderful. Okay, bear in mind this is a bike, a very expensive and pristine bike, donated by a member to the museum. It had just been serviced to the tune of a good amount of jingle, and everybody is treating this thing like it is a soufflé that may fall. And here comes Bill Boyce. Walking, talking, living, and breathing institutional memory and experience. He kicks it a couple times. It plays dead.
Bill says something to the AMA Pro Racing guys standing around, and they go fetch a tool box. The collective gasp from the gallery was audible, “Bill is going to apply a wrench to the thing! Avert your eyes!”
Oh, hell yeah, he was, it was hilarious. He totally tweaked the timing, tossing wrenches left and right, while, in his jovial fashion, explaining what he was up to the whole time. He gets done, straddles the bike, stands on the kick starter, and BOOM, that bad boy fired up. I had to laugh. There wasn’t another soul in that building that knew intuitively what that Indian needed, and they were scared to touch it. To Bill, it was just a bike. He had raced the things, after all.
You see? One cannot go out with an executive search firm and find a Cathy Brown or a Rob Rasor or a Bill Boyce or a Bill Wood. Their contributions to the AMA were notable and compounded over decades. I think there is something of value here that any organization can learn from. An organization, any organization, can lose its direction in the absence of that accumulated knowledge, especially without retaining the people with the ability to pass it on.
People are not expendable, and in many cases, they are irreplaceable. Because, ultimately, the beneficiaries of that institutional knowledge will be you: the rider. At the end of the day, that’s what it is all about. Whether you work for a shop or a motorcycle magazine or a manufacturer or aftermarket supplier, as we are all part of a member-driven organization, we are all the members, we are the riders.
Ride safe. Look where you want to go.
About the Author: Chris Kallfelz is an orphaned Irish Catholic German Jew from a broken home with distinctly Buddhist tendencies. He hasn’t got the sense God gave seafood. Nice women seem to like him on occasion, for which he is eternally thankful, and he wrecks cars, badly, which is why bikes make sense. He doesn’t wreck bikes, unless they are on a track in closed course competition, and then all bets are off. He can hold a reasonable dinner conversation, eats with his mouth closed, and quotes Blaise Pascal when he’s not trying to high-side something for a five-dollar trophy. He’s been educated everywhere, and can ride bikes, commercial airliners and main battle tanks.