Ten Reasons to Invest in Your Organization's History

"What's past is prologue," observed Shakespeare in the Elizabethan romance, The Tempest. Four centuries later, the Bard's cautionary quip still rings true, especially for businesses trying to chart a sound course in stormy economic seas.

Unfortunately, the simple wisdom of turning to the past to prepare for tomorrow's challenges falls on deaf ears in many companies. Many organizations don't realize that history offers relevant lessons, even in an era of fast-paced change. Still others simply cross their fingers and hope that bits and pieces of cherished heritage will be transmitted by magic to the next generation's decisionmakers. All of them squander one of an organization's most strategic resources: its history.

If your organization suffers from institutional amnesia, it might be time to take action. The publication of an internal history--perhaps to mark an anniversary or other milestone--can provide the perfect opportunity to make the past a valuable prologue to the future.

How?

1. By celebrating past achievements and reminding everyone of how far the organization has come since its founding days. A carefully researched and written book can offer timely and compelling testimony about the institution's ability to weather bad times and adapt to change.

2. By circulating history that would otherwise remain buried in the archive. History that resides quietly in neatly organized file drawers is of little value to anyone. A book, exhibit or other heritage program pays dividends by putting a valuable asset to work for the institution.

3. By giving employees a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. Now that the era of the dyed-in-the-wool "company man" has passed, organizations must find other ways to foster employee loyalty. In painting the "big picture" of an organization's evolution and success, a book can help employees both new and old appreciate the importance of their contributions in creating and sustaining the institution.

4. By preserving institutional memory that would otherwise be lost. Every time a long-time employee retires, an important slice of an institution's knowledge base walks out the door. A book project offers an ideal opportunity to conduct oral history interviews and other research to create a permanent database of firsthand insights into the organization's strengths and weaknesses.

5. By investing in the next generation's knowledge about the organization. Without an understanding of the company's track record, newcomers begin life on the job with one hand tied behind their backs. A history of the organization will pay for itself over and over again in increased productivity by helping new recruits get up to speed quickly on the company's culture, goals and vision.

6. By providing continuity between generations. A change in command can be traumatic for any organization--more so for those that don't consciously plan the transmission of the institution's heritage to younger employees. A book or other ongoing heritage program can smooth the way by equipping the next generation's leaders well ahead of time with the knowledge and perspective they will need when their turn comes to develop long-term strategies and map out the future.

7. By offering lessons about both mistakes and successes. Everyone agrees that reinventing the wheel would be a tremendous waste of time. Instead of sweeping bad ideas or miscalculations under the rug, turn them into profitable learning experiences. Anecdotes about ideas or products that failed can teach volumes about how to approach risktaking, how to learn from mistakes and how an institution or individual can stumble and recover to go on to greater achievements.

8. By correcting myths and legends. Bad history is worse than no history at all. Leaders can't make intelligent, informed decisions about the future based on an inaccurate understanding of the past. An honest and balanced look at the institution provides a sound foundation for good management, as well as a powerful reminder that individual ego and vanity have limited roles in institutional success.

9. By providing an opportunity to reassess the organization's image. Caught up in the here-and-now of survival, organizations rarely take time to sit back and take a critical, comprehensive look at themselves. A commitment to publish or otherwise present an internal history offers an unparalleled chance to take stock and reevaluate not only an institution's self-image, but also its image in the world at large. A key anniversary or other milestone provides a tailor-made opportunity to launch a whole new era for the organization, complete with programs that look back to the past as well as forward to the future.

10. By encouraging a "use it, don't lose it" mindset toward the organization's history. Attention to the past should be a daily habit, not a once-every-25-years event. By publishing a book, developing an archive, establishing an oral history program or setting up a museum or exhibit, an organization tells its members in tangible terms that what has gone before is both valued and valuable. Employees will soon realize that their own work--past, present and future--is likewise of critical importance in writing the next chapter of the organization's success story.
The above is adapted from an article that appeared in GLASS Magazine, a publication of the National Glass Association, March 1994.

The above is adapted from an article that appeared in GLASS Magazine, a publication of the National Glass Association, March 1994.

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