Recently I read a journal article examining the arguments for and against devoting resources to preserving and completing company histories. The debate reflects differences of opinion over the usefulness and value company histories have to the business world. Given the role businesses play in society, especially small businesses, historians and archivists maintain the necessity to preserve, recognize, and tell the story of a rich heritage that can be found in many communities. For these professionals, there is no debate over the value company histories provide.
A typical strategy used in the business world is to identify the return on investment before committing resources to a project. Unfortunately for historians and archivists, the monetary value gained by historical research, analyses, and preservation can be difficult to quantify. Fortunately for historians and archivists, many in the business world recognize the value, comment on and identify the value regularly, and do commit resources to preserving a company’s heritage.
While a company historical narrative can be viewed as a simple tool to explain the origins of a company or to establish a rudimentary timeline to demonstrate the longevity of a business, there are those who advocate a more significant and robust utilization of a company’s past. (For an excellent discussion and review of the debate see Paul C. Lasewicz, “Forget the Past? Or History Matters: Selected Academic Perspectives on the Strategic Value of Organizational Pasts” The American Archivist, Vol. 78, no. 1, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 59-83.)
A five-minute Internet search of Harvard Business Review articles reveals how valuable history can be to the business world. Not only is history important for understanding the past, these articles clearly state, they contribute to communicating and guiding a company’s future.
An article in 1996 discussed the need for corporations to focus on a vision and core values, catch phrases now present in most organizations. The author argues that core values grounded in the company’s past experience is what keeps an organization together (“Building Your Company’s Vision,” September/October 1996, by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras). An article in 2012 emphasizes the use of history to discover company values, and to use shared historical values to connect to business partners and potential customers (“Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool,” December 2012 by John T. Seaman Jr. and George David Smith). And in 2014, an article encouraged corporations to give executive status to company historians because of the value and depth they bring to communicating the corporate message in a meaningful way (“Why Marketing Needs to Hire a Corporate Folklorist,” July 15, 2014, by Patti Sanchez). In a world constantly attuned to any competitive advantage, history can be an effective tool.
Given the status and influence the business world maintains in the United States, company histories provide insight into American society. Companies drive political decisions, impact education, invest in the arts, affect the creation of parks and cultural facilities, and shape the general landscape of communities. They impact the lives of employees and their families. Companies and the people who create them, manage them, and work at them populate the community, define the community, and determine the community’s future. If company histories are not being written, a community’s historical record remains incomplete.
A good company history does more than make for an interesting tale soon forgotten. The history goes beyond significant dates and describes the lives of the people involved. It relays the triumphs and disappointments familiar in life. It imparts wisdom by illustrating how success occurs fitfully, because no company in existence for any period of time has experienced uninterrupted progress. It relates the values the company has held for generations, and the people who have framed and then lived those values. It educates the public on the impact companies have on society. It enriches the history of a community and connects the company to the community members who work there. In other words, company histories have exceptional value and should be documented and told.