Stick or Twist? Or: What Has the Company Ever Taught Us?

We live in interesting times. The world’s population recently passed the seven billion mark, and is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050.  Nearly 870 million people, or one in eight, are chronically undernourished.  One in four of the world’s children are stunted,  while more than 1.4 billion people on the planet are overweight.  Something is going very, very wrong.

The unprecedented growth of the world’s population is placing unparalleled strain on individuals and ecosystems alike. Lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease are projected to reach epidemic proportions, while climate change is destabilising the world’s familiar weather patterns and leading to ever more natural disasters that claim lives and destroy livelihoods around the planet.

At the same time, an unparalleled profusion of disruptive new technologies is wiping out entire industries.

The music industry has been decimated by the effects of digitalisation, and the publishing and bookselling industries are going the same way. The oil industry will soon have to step aside for a new biobased economy; the pharma industry will be obliged to adapt to a medicare philosophy based on prevention of potential conditions rather than treatment of actual symptoms; and even the accountants and – dare I say it – the lawyers have seen their professions radically reshaped by the very tools that they use to do their day-to-day jobs.

Faced with change on such a scale, what can we hope to learn from history? And what, if anything, might we reasonably expect to learn from the history of a company?


“Crimes, follies and misfortunes”

Let us start by briefly examining the purpose of history, and specifically of corporate history. Definitions of the purpose of history vary with the personalities of individual historians and the spirit of the times in which they were active. Edward Gibbon, English author of the 18th-century classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, remarked that

“History … is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”

A very jaundiced view, characteristic of a society that had largely lost its faith in both religion and kingship. It is wildly different from the position of Livy, or Titus Livius Patavinus, the Roman historian who chronicled the history of Rome some eighteen hundred years before Gibbon and observed that: “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things rotten through and through, to avoid.”

Interestingly, both viewpoints imply that history contains a catalogue of things to avoid. It may or may not teach us how to conduct our affairs, but it certainly gives us some insights into how not to do so. This consideration is important in the context of company histories, I believe, and particularly in the context of the present debate as to the credibility of corporate history. For my part, I find useful the definition provided by the British historian E.H. Carr, author of, among other works, a 14-volume history of the Soviet Union and a book boldly entitled What is History?

“The function of the historian,” Carr stated, “is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master it and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.”

This is a very finely balanced definition which forbids the historian to engage in sentimental reminiscing on the one hand and victimised hand-wringing on the other: it calls on the historian to accomplish an act of mastery which will have a beneficial effect on the present, irrespective of the precise content of the past. This definition I find very useful, and I would like to work with it to consider the peculiar requirements of corporate history.


The birth of corporate history

It could be argued that corporate history is as old as written history itself, and that the Tacituses and Machiavellis of this world were writing a species of corporate history when they penned their respective accounts of Ancient Rome and Mediaeval Florence. Certainly the rewards that were open to them, as well as the punishments they might incur, might resonate with anyone who has been charged with writing the history of a major corporation.

Be that as it may, the modern genre of corporate history can arguably be traced back to Charles Hindley’s History of the Catnach Press,  a book which appeared in 1869 and which recounts the story of John and James Catnach, the father-and-son printers who were pioneers in bringing cheap print to the masses of Victorian society. Very significantly, this work is inspired not only by the sensationalist  “penny-dreadful” material that the Catnachs printed but also by the process innovations they introduced, using real paper and printer’s ink for low-budget publications rather than the cheap substitutes current at the time.

Histories of companies from the great age of industrialisation tend to be written by the founders or their key employees in celebration of significant jubilees, and not by professional historians.

They are often rich in anecdote and they frequently make the mistake of concluding with forward-looking statements that the march of progress is to render horribly obsolete within decades. Nothing is as out of date as a photograph of the Board of Management of a defunct company. We live in very different times, however, with the family bonds that characterised early high capitalism the exception rather than the rule in most countries today, and most corporations  increasingly aware of the need to cultivate their history with the aid of professional specialists and an ever-increasing range of new archiving and publishing technologies.

The burden of curation

But the ground has shifted. The great early entrepreneurs – the Hoffmann-La Roches and the Alexander Graham Bells and the Henry Fords – did not run global corporations in today’s sense. They did not have to report on their sustainability standards, their diversity profile or their levels of employee engagement. They did not have to cultivate dialogue with antagonistic pressure groups bent on forcing them to change their policies, or to communicate in terms of sound-bites and share of voice. And they did not have, most significantly, a huge burden of history to curate. Whatever may have driven them to achieve exceptional things – and figures such as Samuel Courtauld III  and Alfred Nobel  were very much driven by the demons of their personal past – they were not the owners of a body of history in the sense that today’s corporations are the owners of a body of history.

And this is a very significant difference.

There are names – of products, industrial accidents and entire companies – that strike a chill into the heart when they are mentioned. Thalodomide. Amoco Cadiz. Three Mile Island. Seveso. Chernobyl. Piper Alpha. Bhopal. Enron. Arthur Andersen. Barings Bank. Deepwater Horizon. Lehman Brothers. One could continue the list, but the point is surely clear. If such events – amongst all the many great things that may have been achieved – are part of a company’s past, how do we master them and use them as the key to the understanding of the present, to return to E.H. Carr. In an age of social media, consumer activism and cyberterrorism that can elevate almost any individual into a David in the face of the corporate Goliath, how should the company curate its past in such a way that everyone can learn from it?



The purpose of the corporation

Let us start by examining the nature and purpose of the corporation itself. Coca-Cola says that its mission is “to refresh the world”. Unilever aims to “help people feel good, look good and get more out of life.” Nike exists “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” BASF is dedicated to creating “chemistry for a sustainable future”. Bold claims – almost as bold as the famous Johnson & Johnson credo which was formulated by Robert Wood Johnson in 1943 and which has guided the company ever since.

Literally carved in stone at the company’s New Jersey headquarters and posted on the internet for all the world to see, this famous value statement is defined as not just a ‘moral compass’ but a ‘recipe for business success.’ It puts the needs of doctors, nurses and patients first and those of stockholders last, asserting that if Johnson & Johnson fulfils its obligations to the people who use its products and those who make its products, it will be in a position to discharge its obligations to the investors who lend the finance to make its operations possible. Interestingly, the final paragraph concludes with the words:

‘Business must make a sound profit. Research must be carried on, innovative programs developed and mistakes paid for.’

Paying for mistakes

And mistakes paid for … The company’s central statement of identity, its seminal expression of its purpose, actually admits of the possibility of failure and makes provision for rectifying such mistakes. I am sure that this position is not unique in the world, but it was certainly pioneering in its day. It is actually the complete opposite of the corral mentality which has characterised the behaviour of so many corporates over the years, a mindset typified by arrogance and secrecy which inspired the creation of a number of increasingly effective activist organisations. Greenpeace’s present influence on corporate life would not be possible without the disastrous decisions taken by the Shell executives responsible for decommissioning the Brent Spar, a North Sea oil storage and tanker loading buoy, in 1995.

Who now owns the history of Shell, a company which started life as a London antique shop in the days before Queen Victoria?

Surely a sizeable sliver of it sits squarely on the desk of Greenpeace and its adherents, well out of the control of anyone at Shell’s global headquarters in The Hague.

The corporation as a publisher

Most major companies today have an inspirational mission statement of some kind. The mission statement has, in fact, taken the place of the old firm motto – the difference being that it is usually articulated in English rather than Latin and that – unless you are Johnson & Johnson – it tends to be revised with disconcerting frequency. The problem is, however, that the ubiquitous mission statement is almost a minimum entry requirement for any company wishing to be taken seriously. Even a company as renowned as General Electric, which does not have a mission statement, defines itself in terms of its lack of a mission statement, in fact.  The mission statement is today essential not simply because investors need to understand who they are lending their money to, customers need to understand who they are buying their products from, or employees need to understand who they are working for.

These are all very valid reasons, but there is another which is, in the context of today’s debate, even more important. It is the fact that all companies have become publishing houses.

I observed in my introductory remarks that the publishing industry is on the brink experiencing the decimation suffered by the music industry in the past ten years. The fact that any corporation can revise its mission statement, post it on its website and instantly publish it worldwide is a symptom of this. The communication tools that we originally conceived as labour-saving devices, which then became weapons of competitive advantage, and then became minimal entry requirements, have transformed the corporation to the effect that it has to talk about itself all the time. It has to talk about what it has just done and what it is about to do next. It has to talk about where it came from, what it believes in, and why it is different from its competitors. It has to beg its licence to operate, and be ready at the drop of a hat to explain to camera its position on almost any subject. The global corporations of the early twenty-first century have astonishing power, and reach, and influence. But only if they continue to talk a good talk. Product and service and values and heritage can mean nothing in the face of a well-publicized PR gaffe.

There are, as it happens, entire websites dedicated to “The worst PR blunders of the year” and “The worst PR disaster of the decade”.


The role of corporate archivists

So where does this put corporate archivists? Is it their role to collate and classify and preserve the relics of the past in the hope that this material can be spun in a positive direction by the right people when the need arises? Should they be archiving all the good and all the bad, maintaining very close links to the company’s legal department and keeping a very strong padlock on the archive doors? Or should they, by contrast, not only open up their archives for general viewing but actively invite stakeholders to contribute to the company’s ongoing appreciation of its own history? If corporate history is by definition an act of co-creation, who is involved in the relationship, and where should the boundaries be drawn?

It is easy, of course, to ask rhetorical questions of this nature, and much harder to answer them.

I myself am neither a corporate nor an academic archivist, and I have neither the responsibilities nor the pressures that go with these professions.  Nevertheless I would like to offer some suggestions as to how corporate history might be cultivated in future so as to make it a compelling and essential part of a company’s activities.

Traditionally, company histories have been published in the form of books – reports by an authoritative source about a certain set of events. Company histories using film, and more recent web-based applications, are derivatives of this model, in which a validated narrative is presented in a clear and coherent way and the reader or viewer may make up his or her own mind on the subject-matter presented.

I am not for a moment questioning the validity and value of these classic approaches to the presentation of company history. Nor would I question the importance of another classic presentation format, the exhibition, or of its more recent derivative, the interactive museum. All these have limitless potential to present the history, products and values of a company in ways which are engaging and informative for outsiders and insiders alike. But I feel that there must be more, and that the potential for more innovative and at the same time more ancient forms of discourse has not been tapped as fully as it might.

Many science-driven companies now engage in open innovation, collaborating with industry peers and academia in search of breakthrough concepts, products and processes.

How many, however, engage in open curation of their own histories? I am not suggesting randomly inviting people in off the street to think up new ways of filing archived material or of asking everyone in the company canteen how they think the new company image film should be edited. I am talking about something rather different. I am talking about the representation of work itself in our society.

Representing the workplace

It is remarkable how little the subject of work is depicted in today’s literature, drama, film and visual arts. There are, of course, exceptions – the highly successful satirical British sitcom series The Office,  for instance, which was launched in 2001 and spawned a US version four years later, or the cult US TV drama Mad Men  about the advertising agencies of New York’s Madison Avenue in the 1960s. These are exceptions, however, and work as a centrally defining element in our existences has not figured largely in the artistic representations of our age. Perhaps it was overdone as a theme by the realist novelists of the nineteenth century, and was thrown out in a wave of Modernism, Futurism and Vorticism following the First World War.

Perhaps it was highjacked by the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, and most of us have seen one heroic female agricultural labourer too many, a baby on one arm and her free hand brandishing a pitchfork at the sky.

Whatever the reason, we have continued to work, and have continued to produce, without representing these activities as widely as we might in our general creative discourse – and not just the discourse controlled by corporates themselves.

A different view of work

I myself would like to read a novel about Jaguar – if only because that is the first famous car marque that comes into my head when I turn my mind to the subject. I would like to watch a play about valium. I would like to listen to an album of songs about the decoding of the human genome. I would like to visit an exhibition of paintings about the manufacture of shoes. I would like – although I am not a lover of opera, by any means – to go to an opera about a supermarket chain. Oh, and I have forgotten about the string quartet about working in a call centre. Let us please have that, preferably with a menu choice of possible opening movements.

I am being facetious, but not entirely so. Work is where many of us spend most of our waking lives. Work is something that makes us what we are, and something that we shape even as it shapes us. The corporations of tomorrow will need not only to cultivate their history, but more than ever to cultivate relationships with those who have a potential interest in their history. The traditional corporate archive is one element in the mix, and it will continue to have an absolutely central role.

But I believe that the aspirations, preoccupations, discoveries, triumphs and disasters which make up the history of all great companies deserve a bigger, broader treatment.

The story needs to be given to other people to tell, even if they may not tell it in exactly the way the company may desire. We need the great corporations to be commissioning the novelists and dramatists, the artists and songwriters, to create works which critically examine what capitalism has collectively achieved. Not lucrative propaganda. Not embittered protest songs, either. But mature, serious and honest encounters with what we have done with all those countless hours of our lives spent working for the company.

We need the great corporations of the world to be cultivating an atmosphere in which their activities are the subject for mainstream artistic treatment and philosophical debate, not just for ephemeral headlines.


Learning from history means learning to listen

Why is this important? Because, to paraphrase E.H. Carr, history is there for us to learn from our mistakes, whatever the nature of those mistakes might have been. And it is on reviewing the errors of our past that we make our decisions about how to conduct ourselves in future. What caused us pain, and what can we learn from it? Should we continue on the same path, or should we change tack? Should we, in card-player’s parlance, stick or twist? What has the company ever taught us, and what should we do with that knowledge?

That is the question that major corporations need to ask themselves almost every day, as the world changes at an unparalleled speed around them. I mentioned at the outset a few of the very many pressures on our planet and our species. I could have filled this talk with a catalogue of woes, from airborne pesticides to zinc deficiency, from anorexia to xenophobia.

Whatever the origins of the problems that face us, it is impossible to imagine their being solved without the involvement of the world’s great global corporations.

I believe that we can indeed learn from history, and from corporate history specifically, and perhaps do something to combat them. But only if our discussion of history is an open debate, and we are all prepared to listen to things that we may well not wish to hear.

© Jonathan Steffen

This article was originally presented as a keynote speech at Crisis, Credibility and Corporate History, a Symposium of the Section on Business and Labour Archives of the International Council on Archives (ICA), held under the auspices of F. Hoffmann-La Roche at the Roche Historical Collection and Archive, Basel, Switzerland, from 14 to 16 April 2013.

Stick or Twist? appears in the proceedings of that symposium, published in September 2014 by the University of Liverpool Press as Crisis, Credibility and Corporate History edited by Alexander Bieri (ICA Studies, 1; ISBN: 9781781381373)


Crisis, Credibility and Corporate History

Crisis, Credibility and Corporate History aims to describe current expectations and strategies held within companies, within academia and amongst the general public for using a company’s history for communication and marketing purposes. Ranging widely across case studies from major international businesses such as IBM, Maersk and Roche, this timely volume includes contributions from marketing specialists, corporate archivists and scholars.

The book is the first in a new series in partnership with the International Council on Archives, an international organisation with membership in around 200 countries. For over sixty years the Council has united archival institutions and practitioners across the globe to advocate for good archival management and to encourage dialogue, exchange, and transmission of this knowledge and expertise across national borders.

Essential reading for business historians, archivists and marketing professionals, Crisis, Credibility and Corporate History presents a clear picture of what writing “corporate history” today involves.

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