Matching Business Historians and Business Archives: Can We Look to eHarmony to Improve the Efficiency of the Process

11 06 2015

Matching Business Historians and Business Archives: Can We Look to eHarmony to Improve the Efficiency of the Process?

Business Historians and Corporate Archivists need to find more efficient ways of connecting researchers with primary sources. We should look to the online dating world for possible models.

Let’s think for a second about the evolution of matching technologies in the marriage market.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most people had a very limited pool of marriage partners. Over the last few hundred years, our society has evolved a variety of increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for matching men and women in urban centres. Lonely hearts ads, which have been in newspapers for since Victorian times, evolved to supplement more spontaneous ways of meeting potential mates in the big anonymous world of the big city. In the 1970s and 1980s, we saw the emergence of singles bars, which were a different mechanism for accomplishing the same goal. The 1990s witnessed the birth of online dating, which was perhaps a step to greater efficiency. Speed dating in person developed about the same time. In the last few years, advances in computing power have resulted in the creation of new forms of online dating with sorting algorithms designed to pair compatible individuals. eHarmony has become a successful business because it uses clever algorithms to run a highly effective online romantic clearinghouse that matches likeminded souls: neat freaks with fellow neat freaks, triathletes with fellow triathletes, and so forth.

Academic research is never a solitary pursuit, even in disciplines that remain dominated by the single-author paper. As Susann Fellman and Andrew Popp have noted in a recent working paper, “the production of history is always a collective endeavor. Numerous participants are involved, from past generations of historical actors, through past generations of historians, others involved in the gathering and preservation of the traces left by the past, to the historical interpreters of the present… A key site of this collective endeavor – even if it is certainly not the only one – is the archive.” (Fellman and Popp, 2015, 1).

In recent years, academics throughout the world have been introduced to the concept of academic speed dating. Regular speed dating is about finding a partner in life. Academic speed dating is about finding research collaborators with intersecting research interests and complementary skillsets. An increasing number of disciplinary conferences feature academic speed-dating events and the speed-dating format is used within universities to create collaborations between departments and faculties. For instance, a university located in the Strand area of London recently used speed dating to encourage legal academics and social scientists to discuss possible co-authorship. The apparent reasoning  was that since many social-scientific topics have a legal dimension that could be discussed in  paper. On one side of a long table were all of the legal academics who signed up to participate. On the other were an equal number of researchers from outside the law department (political scientists, historians, economists, etc). At the start of the event, each social scientist sat in front of a randomly selected legal academic. They had three minutes to describe their research, after which the law lecturer discussed his or her research for three minutes. In the remaining four minutes, they chatted about possible collaboration on papers, grant applications, and the like. After ten minutes, a bell rang and the academics shuffled down the table, repeating the process with another potential collaborator. At the end of the event, there was a reception with drinks and the chance to resume earlier discussions. The costs of the event were underwritten by senior research administrators who were eager to promote research collaboration between different REF units of assessment. There is some preliminary evidence to suggest that academic speed dating is a fairly efficient way of bringing together research collaborators. The academic speed dating concept can also be adapted to promoting collaboration between academics and non-academic stakeholders (e.g., management academics and the member firms of a local chamber of commerce).

For business historians, perhaps the most important type of collaboration with firms involves access to company archives. Much like academic speed dating or indeed speed-dating of the original, romantic kind, archival research is an activity carried on for mutual benefit. For the business historian, the benefits of archival research are pretty straightforward: getting access to the primary sources required to write a publishable article. From the standpoint of the corporate archivist, and the perspective of the firm who is his or her principal, the benefits are a bit more complex.  Firms give outsiders access to their archives for a wide variety of reasons that include the desire to promote a positive company image, the need to know more about the organization’s own history, and perhaps the tax advantages that come with opening up their archive to academics. A sense of corporate social responsibility may also be part of the firm’s motivation for allowing outsiders access to once confidential documents. Most corporate archivists are eager to encourage academic researchers to use their archives, at least insofar as they have the time and other resources needed to host outsiders and escort them around buildings. Although corporate archivists have a fiduciary duty to exclude muckrakers and other researchers who might use documents to hurt their employers, corporate archivists also have incentives to maximize the number of “safe” researchers who pass through the door of their archives. After all, an archivist will want to be able to demonstrate to their superiors that the archive is indeed in frequent use. Corporate archivists are also frequently motivated by a desire to share their knowledge of their holdings with researchers and a sense of curiosity about their employers’ histories. In my experience, corporate archivists love telling researchers: “you know, there is this obscure piece of correspondence that’s really relevant to your research question. Let me dig it out of deep storage.”

In short, business historians need corporate archivists and corporate archives needs business historians. The challenge is to find an efficient way of putting archivists in contact with the right business historian.  How can we use technology to reduce transaction costs, improve markets, and put researchers and business archives together? Online services such as eBay have brought buyers and sellers of lawnmowers together for years. Various online dating apps are doing the same thing for the romantically inclined.

There is no doubt that the existence of the National Register of Archives and other online directories of business archives has simplified our lives and have thus increased the quality and the quality of the business history being produced.  Corporate archives are now putting more detailed descriptions of their holdings online (see the Barclays Group Archive’s stunning new website), which will further increase utilization. The fact that all academic researchers now have an online presence, which allows corporate archivists to verify the identities of people who email asking for archival access, has also helped. However, the business-history community needs to do more if we are to increase the efficiency of our research process in an increasingly competitive environment.

The UK business-history community could try to organize speed-dating events in central locations (e.g., London or Birmingham) to bring archivists and business historians together. If the speed-dating event were held in the summer, when researchers are normally free of teaching duties, many academics would attend. Unfortunately, few corporate archivists have the funds and indeed travel authorization to attend such events.

A somewhat better option would be arrange an online speed-dating event. However, this arrangement would still be somewhat time-consuming.  The best option would be to create an online resource that would combine detailed descriptions of archival holdings with academics’ personal statements of research interests and then an algorithm for matching.  Our colleagues in the field of genetics, a discipline that is pre-occupied with, er, various forms of matching, have already established a model we can use. In 2014,  Cambridge University geneticist Rafael Carazo Salas and two Italian colleagues wrote an algorithm that matched attendees at an international conference with a view to introducing people to potential research collaborators and co-authors. [It appears that their programme may have been inspired by the fictional character Sheldon Cooper from the TV show The Big Bang Theory]. Dr Carazo-Salas had earlier observed that while chance conversations at conferences sometimes lead to international scholarly collaborations, the attendee of a large conference will only have the opportunity to speak to a small percentage of the other attendees. As a result, many opportunities for collaboration go undiscovered.  The Times Higher Education supplement (2014) quoted Dr Carazo-Salas as saying that he wished to treat conference delegates in the same way “we treat genes, and used mathematical algorithms to build a connectivity picture that could enable new links to be made.”

Business historians and archivists should initiate a conversation about how we adapt the procedure of Dr Carazo-Salas to our needs. In constructing an algorithm, business historians and business archivists will likely need to form collaborations with the following groups: research funding councils, computer scientists, and business historians in other countries. Considerable effort will be required at first but the benefits could be substantial and would likely include a number of happy relationships between business historians and business archivists. Such relationships would produce conference papers that would hopefully grow up into articles in top-ranked ABS-ranked journals. Such publications would doubtless make both of their parents extremely proud.

Works Cited

Barclays Group Archive. (2015). http://www.barclays.com/about-barclays/history/barclays-group-archive.html

Fellman, S. and A. Popp. (2015). “Owners, Archivists and Historians: Towards a Stakeholder Perspective on Corporate Archives.” Unpublished working paper.

Reisz, M. (2014). “’Speed dating’ helps conference academics mix” Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 February.

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