The annual conference for the International Council on Archives‘ (ICA) Section on Business Archives (SBA) is taking place right now, 5-6 April 2017, in Stockholm. A follow-up conference will be taking place 4–6 December in Mumbai. Both events are about the Future Role of Business Archives and should interest both business historians and uses of the past scholars (I’m both). In the photo below, you can see Kathrine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation giving keynote today. Photo courtesy of Anders Ravn Sørensen
Although I can’t be at the Stockholm conference, I am hoping to get to the one in Mumbai. The focus of the Stockholm conference in on the importance of using true stories for external brand-building communication. In Mumbai, the focus on the internal effects that historical stories can have on management decisions and organizational culture. Since my current research looks at how history influences managerial cognition and organizational culture, the Mumbai conference is a better fit for my research.
These two conferences will help us to answer the following questions: why do corporate archives exist? How does the use of history give firms a competitive advantage? How do corporate archives help firms to use history more effectively? Why on earth would a for-profit company fund the creation of a corporate archive? Why are firms in some industries more likely to spend money on elaborate archives than firms in other industries? Scholars various disciplines have come up with competing explanations for why corporate archives exist. There is a consensus that corporate archives exist because they help firms to achieve their objectives. However, there is disagreement about precisely how archives give firms a competitive advantage.
According to National Strategy for Business Archives of England and Wales (2009), which was written by people trained in the academic discipline of archive science, company archives exist to support “new product innovation, corporate culture and brand identity management information and evidence to protect against litigation, trademark infringement, or assault on reputation”. This description of the function of corporate archives hints at the fact that corporate archives can serve very different purposes. According to Castellani and Rossato (2014), two Italian communications studies professors, corporate archives “act as an innovative communication tool” that create opportunities “for dialogue between the company and its community”. This interpretation, likely reflects the Italian context of the authors and is difficult to reconcile with the examples of corporations that fund excellent, well-organized archives that are closed to all external users (Alcan’s archive in Montreal is a famous case in point).
My point is that right now the social-scientific literature doesn’t give us a clear generalisable answer about what exactly corporate archives are for and how they contribute to the competitive advantage of companies. Our paper seeks to answer these questions. Our argument is that possessing an archive gives a firm a competitive advantage because it makes the historical narratives produced by the firm seem more authentic in the eyes of stakeholders. Most firms invest at least a few resources in the production of historical narratives. The advantage one gets by spending money on a proper archive is that people in post-Enlightenment cultures are much more likely to believe a firm’s historical narrative if it is based on archival documents. It is no coincidence that the world’s first corporate archive was developed by the East India Company in the wake of the Enlightenment, which had convinced educated British people that for a historical narrative to be true, it had to be based on primary sources. Needless to say, many companies have since emulated the EIC’s archive-based rhetorical history strategy!
Castellani, P., & Rossato, C. (2014). On the communication value of the company museum and archives. Journal of Communication Management, 18(3), 240-253.