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Too Many UK Companies Fail To See The Point Of History

US companies take their corporate history far more seriously than most of their UK counterparts, according to a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). American companies are more likely to draw attention to official published histories on their websites, more likely to invest in historically orientated visitor attractions or museums, such as The World of Coca Cola in Atlanta, and more likely to publish official histories.

By taking a more low key approach to their corporate past, UK companies may be failing to capitalise on a range of potential business benefits, argues researcher Professor Michael Rowlinson based at Queen Mary, University of London. “Clearly visitor attractions can be businesses in their own right,” he suggests. “But more importantly, many customers put some store by the fact that a company has a long and recognisable history. And companies who actively remind us of their history, their heritage and hence their corporate identity, may be helping to strengthen consumers’ views of their longevity and trustworthiness.”

A survey of the websites, annual reports and directories of more than 85 US and UK companies reveals that nearly all companies produce historical accounts of themselves. However, the quality of the historical material is extremely variable and many companies could vastly improve the way in which they present their history to the public.

For example, the survey shows that within two or three clicks, historical content can be found in the websites of nearly all large companies. But this often takes the form of a timeline which, while displaying the web designer’s mastery of technical gizmos, does little to tell a coherent story of a company’s past. “Dry facts with no story are unlikely to grab any reader’s attention,” Professor Rowlinson points out. Nor are the scholarly business histories favoured by some large companies likely to attract a particularly wide audience.

Yet some businesses employ highly innovative ways of publicising their past. HSBC, for example, commissioned a History Wall for the entrance of its London headquarters. Composed of nearly 4,000 images from the Group’s past, it combines the characteristics of a gallery, a library and a work of contemporary art. And, for its 25th anniversary, Microsoft produced its own book, insideout: Microsoft – In Our Own Words (2000) in which, almost all the text is composed of direct quotes from employees, who are listed alphabetically on the inside and back covers.

An accurate portrayal of a company’s history is, Professor Rowlinson believes, vitally important to ensuring a robust corporate identity. And hiring prominent historians to write your business history may prove problematic if they employ their own historical interpretation to produce a convincing story.

“Companies play an important role in society,” Professor Rowlinson concludes. “Their history helps to inform customers about who they are. If, like many organisations today, they are serious about pursuing a corporate social responsibility agenda in terms of ethical practices then they should also be honest about how they represent their past.”

Annika Howard | alfa
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