Monday Musings: 169 – Invest in writing the history of organisations
Organisations have histories like nations, societies, cultures and individuals. Very often they also have legends, folklores and stories, that one generation says to another and the legend or the myth perpetuates. After a while truth mixes with fiction to create strange but deadly cocktails. A larger majority perpetuates the legends and the myths because status quo suits them. No one questions history as it might upset the apple cart.
India is particularly averse to this. We do not allow our myths and histories to be studied scientifically. A few who managed to do so get persecuted. Ramanujam questioned the single narrative of Ramayana in his article ‘A hundred Ramayanas’ through an intensely academic article, whether we should consider the singular canned version of Ramayana, popularised particularly by the TV serial by the same name as the only narrative. In response, his paper was dropped by the academic council in the Delhi university. A book on Shivaji led to the venerated Bhandarkar institute in Pune being vandalized. Movies on historical figures often generate so much heat and dust that directors hesitate to analyse the life of icons lest it shall create mass protests, imagined hurt and if they are (un)lucky enough, a ban. Researchers of all kinds study history, its icons and events to see if there are alternative narratives of them which we might have missed. The popular version need not be the correct version. The west is clearly ahead of us. Their authors, movie makers and artists can question anything and anyone. This scrutiny makes all of us richer.
But this is not about nations and icons only. It is also true of organisations. We either do not do a good job of documenting history clinically, dispassionately and secularly – and even if do get past this challenge, we do a poor job of referring to it at all times to learn from it. History can be a cross on your shoulders in two ways – History can be a memory that permanently looms on the horizon. Even when it is gone, it is never gone. Classical phrases one hears in such a system – we tried it and it did not work, it won’t work here, we are different, this business is different, we are a different people, people won’t accept it, so on and so forth. The second way in which history acts like a barrier when it is a history of failure. If things go wrong once, it might sap the sense of initiative of the whole system. Instead of learning right lessons from the failure, which is to strengthen the muscles of the organisation, the wrong lessons are learnt i.e do not take an initiative at all.
Now let us also talk two bits of how does organisational history gets written, or rather how it should get written, if it is written in the first place. All initiatives, business plans, organisation transformation journeys must be documented by specialised organisational historians. History writing should move beyond collecting and preserving memorabilia – it should capture successes and failures. It should capture the thought behind strategy formulation and its impact both in the short term as well as the long term. Intended consequences must be captured as must be the unintended consequences, and from history writing point of view, it is the latter which must be the focus. Ripples of a stone thrown in water travel far and wide, much beyond the point at which the stone hit the water. Capture collective assumptions, collective stupidity and collective lapses as much as capture collective success and heroics. And if one has to make an error of bias, then capture mistakes more than successes. History writing is not about witch hunting and finding scape goats – in fact people should be mentioned only to make the story real. The real purpose is to learn lessons. Genuine lessons are learnt only when history is secular.
Now as mentioned earlier, India does a shoddy job of writing history. It does an even shoddier job of exhuming it and learning from it. Indian organisations, by and large, are not any different.
PS: Many large and old organisations have a archives. Some of them like Coke have museums.