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How corporate histories help companies understand their past, present, and future

By Scott Vierick, Historian

A well-written and researched corporate history is a powerful asset for any organization. An experienced corporate historian can go beyond a simple celebratory account and can write an insightful, compelling, and accurate official corporate history that can serve as both a reference point to a company’s past and a source of inspiration for its future.

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A corporate history does not need to be a traditional book. HAI’s most recent company history took the form of an interactive website using the PassItDown platform.

The benefits of corporate histories

An official corporate history helps preserve institutional memory. According to the Bureau of Labor Statics, pre-pandemic, the average employee had been at their company for around four years. Corporate histories help employees new and old better understand their organization’s past, including key decisions, events, personnel, and stakeholders. When companies have a history of mergers or acquisitions, having a clear, understandable account for employees to reference is especially valuable.

For example, when Product Hatchery purchased the common law rights to Reineberg’s Shoes and Shoe Repair company, they hired HAI to craft a report on the business’s history. The final product highlighted the similarities between the 140-year-old shoe store and the seven-year-old digital product company and provided a narrative to guide future marketing efforts. 

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A financial record from the 19th century. HAI historians were able to efficiently review records in both English and French to help a client identify ties to slavery in antebellum Louisiana.

A thorough and accurate history is built upon thorough research including physical documents, oral histories, and photos/multimedia. Once the research is complete, there are many options to share that information with the world including books, online timelines, or websites. Oftentimes, the research reveals previously undiscovered resources that can be leveraged by the company. In 2015, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance (HDA) hired HAI to update its corporate history by creating an online timeline. The sources and materials identified as part of the research ended up being so compelling that HDA had HAI create an exhibit for its annual conference to better share this history with its members.  

The final option should be tailored to the needs of the organization, but many companies are increasingly prioritizing accessibility, wanting to have a product that can be easily viewed, considered, and studied by people at all levels of the organization and the general public. Shorter booklets, digital timelines, or interactive websites are all ideal venues for this approach.  

Handling difficult parts of a corporation’s past

Not every part of a company’s history will be positive or laudatory. History Associates has worked with many clients to both determine corporate genealogy and examine primary sources that show involvement with antebellum slavery. Some jurisdictions mandate that any company seeking to do business in their community disclose any ties to antebellum slavery. A history of mergers, acquisitions, restructuring, and divestments mean that many companies answering this question will have to do more research than simply determining whether incorporation was pre- or post1865.

While not all companies face this issue, many do have events in their past that are less than exemplary. Although the tendency might be to ignore or hide these parts of an organization’s story, a thorough accounting of them can yield many benefits. Conducting thorough historical research can help identify how these events happened, what steps have been taken to resolve the issues, or what action needs to be taken in the future. Bringing on an outside corporate history consultant can help ensure that the research on these difficult topics is comprehensive, fair, and detailed. 

Where corporate histories come from

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A well-organized archive can save a company space, time, money, and sanity.

A key part of any official corporate history is drawing upon the resources in a company’s archives. An organization’s archives can hide a trove of treasures. Documents relating to important decisions, marketing materials, and images and artifacts can all often be found in the archive.

However, for many companies, these archives are often disorganized and inaccessible. Investing in archiving and creating a detailed collections plan for future additions yields many benefits. Relevant documents can be easily referenced, marketing materials can inspire future advertising campaigns, and old photos and videos can show how the organization and the people who work there evolved. An experienced corporate archivist can help clear up cluttered files and determine what documents should remain or be disposed of. With the proper expertise, even the most chaotic storage space can become an accessible and useful corporate archive.

As noted by the Harvard Business Review, “to lead with a sense of history is not to be a slave to the past but, rather, to acknowledge its power.” A well-crafted corporate history can help harness that power and ensure better decisionmakingIt can give an organization a better sense of itself, where it is, where it’s been, and where it needs to go. However, to be successful, a company needs to be willing, to be honest, thorough, and reflective as it goes about research and compiling the narrative. While the process is challenging, the results are usually worth it.

For nearly 40 years, HAI has provided history services to a diverse range of small, medium, and large corporations and nonprofits. Some clients wanted to celebrate their anniversaries, others needed to investigate and comprehend the ghosts of their pasts, while still others needed help organizing their own inaccessible and disorganized archives. Please contact us directly if you are interested in creating your own corporate history!

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