October 12, 2021 • Sam Grabel
The word “archive” can evoke images of dust-covered shelves of leather-bound volumes and old scrolls. Or teetering mountains of folders with papers spilling out the sides. It sounds like the kind of place where professor Robert Langdon from “The Da Vinci Code” might look for clues to finding the Holy Grail (the original Golden Nugget).
These images, however romantic, do not paint an accurate picture of what modern—let alone corporate-focused—archive might look like. One of the biggest misconceptions about company archives is that they’re filled with old stuff and so only are important to companies that have long, storied histories.
We’re here to dispel that notion. Any organization can benefit from creating an archival collection, even if it’s a fledgling startup only a few years old. So, even if you’ve never considered it, here’s why your organization could benefit from an archives and why there’s no better time than the present to start collecting its history.
Building business archives is just like organizing your personal life. As time goes on, you acquire more and more artifacts, and you have to arrange them in a way that makes sense if you ever want to find them. Your company is amassing artifacts, both physical and digital, at an astonishing rate. mails, product designs and prototypes, presentations, cultural initiatives, memos, and even swag are artifacts. All of these capture your organization’s culture and belong in an archives. (If you’re wondering about the difference between “archive” and “archives,” it’s this: An archive is the physical space where a company stores its archives, which is the historical collection itself.)
Just as most of an iceberg’s mass is hidden below the water’s surface, only 10% of cultural artifacts are “visible.” The rest are often less obvious and may take some time to collect—such as stories that capture your organization’s perceptions, beliefs, values, norms and unwritten rules. These stories, which can be captured in an oral history program, should also be included in your archives.
The point is that the longer you wait, the more of these things you’ll need to round up and the more people you’ll need to interview. Building an archives from scratch can become an intimidating and time-consuming lift if you leave it too long. Continuous and ongoing maintenance takes less effort and costs less in the long run.
This might sound like a head-scratcher: Documents from 100 years ago have greater longevity than documents created today. For example, a letter that a company’s founder wrote in 1921 is more likely to be around in 50 years than an email from this week. Here’s why: Born-digital documents don’t last nearly as long as analog ones do.
Think about a paper document. We know the rate at which paper—or, in the case of older documents, parchment—degrades. However, we have ways of preserving these physical materials in a climate- and light-controlled space so that they will continue to exist for generations to come. And, of course, you can always digitize physical documents to create easier access and to keep the original artifacts safe from wear and tear.
Now think of a born-digital file such as a Microsoft Word document. A digital file becomes obsolete faster than paper degrades. Since the introduction of Microsoft Word in 1983, the standard document format has already changed from .doc to .docx. While .doc files are still accessible now, they might not always be.
Video storage is another great example. In the last 40 years, video file formats that have come into and gone out of vogue include VHS, LaserDisc, MiniDV, DVD and Blu-ray. Do you still have the technology to play something that was stored on a VHS tape?
Couple diminishing access with the sheer volume of artifacts being created, and you have found yourself in what we call “the digital black hole,” a great abyss into which important documents and artifacts disappear, never to be seen again. Put a plan in place to start archiving and preserving these digital assets with future-looking storage options before it’s too late. You won’t lose them if you are ready for technology to change.
A milestone is what you make of it. There’s no reason you can’t celebrate the anniversary of a product launch or creation of a new division, or just a few years in business. One day, with a little luck, determination and hard work, your organization may be celebrating a big anniversary like its 50th or 100th. It’s important to celebrate small wins on the way to bigger ones, and it’s essential to use these celebrations to build your organization’s culture and reinforce its mission and ethos.
Milestone messaging is extremely important. What better way to bolster this messaging than by looking to your organization’s history to inspire its future? Whenever History Factory begins to plan a corporate anniversary for a client, we look first to the company archives to inform the types of stories we will tell and support them with visual materials. Without an archives, it becomes significantly more difficult to track down stories and the assets to support them.
Conversely, if you don’t already have an archives, an anniversary can be a great catalyst to start one. You’ll have done much of the groundwork in terms of rounding up stories, images, videos and other research, and you can easily turn that into an archival pilot for your organization.
For younger companies—let’s say those less than 50 years old—it’s possible your founder is still alive or even still involved with the company in some way. Founders’ stories are invaluable to capturing institutional memories of the “before times,” unique perspectives on the sparks that created innovation, or stories of the adversity they had to face and the sacrifices they had to make to get their ideas off the ground.
According to Bain & Co., most startups begin as agile organizations that buck traditional ideas and methods. As they scale, they lose the “Founder’s Mentality®” that defines their mission and sense of purpose. Recording your founder’s mentality and codifying it for future generations of leadership and employees can serve as a North Star to keep your organization on track and rooted in its founding values.
If you have readily available access to your founder right now, take advantage of it. In 100 years, these stories will be gone unless you capture and store them today.
Fans of “The Office” may know the quote from the salesman-turned-boss Andy Bernard: “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.” Well, your organization is in the “good old days” today. Even though times might seem tough, especially with COVID-19 and other challenges facing your business, that’s what makes your story that much more compelling.
You’re facing adversity, and whether you’re barely scraping by or thriving, this is all part of your company’s story. Memos to employees about COVID-19 and work-from-home protocols, correspondence related to crisis management and culture-building initiatives, documents charting your strategy to deal with supply chain issues and keep your customers happy. All of these things have a place in your modern archives and will become part of the lore of how your company staved off collapse. Just because it’s happening right now doesn’t mean it’s not history.
A business archives provides enormous value not just to a 100-year-old company but to any organization at any stage of its life cycle. Therefore, it’s important to begin thinking about building your company archives as an ongoing initiative that can help inform your organization’s future direction.
If you’re unsure of where to start, take a look at our comprehensive Guide to Company Archives for answers to some FAQ and ideas for where you can begin.
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