The Value of Corporate History

Businessmen pose on a Westinghouse generator

Everything has a history, simply because everything exists in time (except of course Monty Python which is timeless).

Starting with nations, which are the best-known kind of histories, we drill down to regions, states, cites and towns. Then further down on the family tree of history we find family histories, and then of course personal histories in the form of biography or memoir.

But let’s not leave out the history of corporations, as well as companies generally, no matter what their legal structure may be. And while we are at it, we should not forget NGOs, charities and organizations of all kinds.

Some people, after all, consider corporations people. Now this idea might well have solicited chuckles when Mitt Romney famously launched it, but if you parse that a little you quickly arrive at a less ridiculous formulation — that corporations are entities. They may not have consciousness or a will, but they certainly do possess a beginning, a middle and an end, or an origin, a present, and hopefully a future.

Thus positioned in time, a corporation (or company) must have a History.

I’ve argued elsewhere that History serves different purposes, so the question what is history for has different answers. But one answer to this question applies across the board — for nations, for towns, for companies and individuals: Histories serve the commissioning entity. In the case of a company, history serves to represent, to preserve, to describe and to further interests, largely by articulating the mission, character and raison d’etre.

Corporate history serves the entity by allowing employees, directors, stake-holders and customers to fully understand and appreciate the role and unique identity thereof. For those in the corporate wheel house, to embark on a nautical metaphor, History provides a back bearing. This is a point of reference in the past that allows one to plot a course forward which aligns with the past, providing continuity, which not only promotes customer confidence, but anchors senior leaders to the core and founding principles.

Now corporations, like other entities, do not always experience linear progression. There are revolutions. There is management turnover, there are stumbling blocks, takeovers and bankruptcies. Given these, the rough edges of anyone’s journey through time, corporate histories are all the more important. It would be too easy for Black Swans — unforeseen challenges or events — to become deal breakers, catastrophically affecting a company’s mojo. But with a strong sense of “corporate self,” the entity can overcome impediments, weathering the lull, or the storm, or the attack by the great White Whale. And a strong corporate sense of self is constructed largely through History.

Another, broader reason for maintaining corporate history is that corporations contribute significantly to the histories of nations, and the world at large.

The history of British India, for example, could not have been written without recourse to the corporate records of the British East India Company. Here, company archives detailed extensive lists of goods bought and sold, personnel files for men and women in their employ, notes and memoranda on the social and political considerations for ruling a country of 300 million Indians with a staff of 10,000 (many women and children).

The story of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) is similar. Established in 1602 it was essentially the world’s first publicly listed company. A government-directed conglomerate of multiple trading and shipping companies, it was intimately connected to government to the extent that in the territories in which it operated (everything East of the Cape of Good Hope), it often had the power to wage war, imprison and execute. Dream on Google.

Naturally, the VOC archives are a Aladdin’s cave for historians. Here one finds an astounding array of information on politics and economics; entire histories of material culture such as the trade in flatware from China; spices from the Indies, social histories of race and gender in Southeast Asia and beyond; invaluable data on ship design, navigational techniques, diplomacy, religion, and warfare.

But large corporations such as the above-mentioned, do not get to control the interpretation of the hard data that comprises their history. As we speak, the history of Facebook, Google, Microsoft is being written for them — as well as by them. And when this happens the genie is out of the box. Sometimes you don’t get to control the narrative, as Facebook is currently discovering.

But for the less-prominent companies and corporations, writing their history is surprisingly easy. By law and by necessity, businesses are obsessive record keepers and accumulate data in large amounts. And most small companies do not have to deal with long time horizons, as other historians do (There are some very old companies, some of which go back hundreds of years, mostly organizations trading in goods or building companies).

Furthermore, in writing the history of a company one is unlikely to come into conflict with multiple other historians coming at the same subject from a different political or theoretical perspective, as one might if one attempted a history of World War One. Or a history of labor unions. One might, however, come into conflict with individuals, players in the company, or their heirs, who have personal axes to grind.

Posterity is probably the main reason to write a company history, as this notion encompasses and encloses ideas such as reputation, pedigree, identity and a certain sense of forward-thinking, all of which collectively contribute to the dynamism of a company. This may seem paradoxical to those of us who grew up to consider history a moribund past time, a morbid interest in bygone eras. But it is quite the contrary. Seeing, interpreting and analysing the past contributes vital life blood to a company, as it does to an individual or nation, as it provides a sense of self and a sense of continuity, both key ingredients to a life in the future.

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750,” and the ebook Look Smart!

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