The English author A.A. Milne, of Winnie the Pooh fame, once wrote: “One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.” The same is often said of how many companies deal with their heritage and historical assets—some are disorganized, and many have gaps in their records or just have no idea if items even exist or where to find them. The richness of their heritage is almost always a source of great surprise.
Whether or not they’re just starting to understand their history and archival assets, many companies can enhance their collections with a Discovery Program.™ These programs help companies uncover their past and collect additional historical assets, artifacts and insights, so they can offer a more complete pictures of where they’ve been and what they’ve accomplished. A Discovery Program can take many forms and has numerous benefits.
The primary benefit of a Discovery Program is to enhance existing archives or heritage asset collections. It’s about filling in the gaps or “black holes” in an organization’s history. Such programs can also yield some striking insights—a-ha moments that provide an alternative perspective to the conventional wisdom about a company.
It has been said that the beauty of a diamond is that it appears different, depending on your angle of vision. The same can be said of a company’s history—specific actions or events can be perceived differently based on your vantage point. Leaders may have one view of an event, and rank-and-file employees may have a completely different perspective on the same event. Discovery Programs can unearth these alternative perspectives, providing a richer resource and expanding the depth of the company’s narrative.
A common type of Discovery Program involves hiring a trained historical researcher to find insights and assets. The researcher hunts through public records, other archives, and even online auction sites like eBay to find references, insights and artifacts to help enhance the company story.
A good example of this was our work with KPMG, the international professional services firm known as one of the “Big Four.” Our researchers discovered a ship manifest from a trans-Atlantic voyage on the Lusitania in 1910 that placed William Barclay Peat and James Marwick—the P and M of KPMG—on the same ship. This voyage took place just months before the two joined forces as Peat Marwick International—a firm that went on to merge with Klynveld Main Goerdeler (KMG) to become today’s KPMG. This discovery added a new depth of understanding of the time immediately prior to the merger and how these two business titans might have met.
Another example comes from Stanley Black & Decker. History Factory researchers uncovered the story of Stanlo, a construction toy made out of metal that was a precursor of LEGO. Stanlo not only encouraged imaginative building for children but also kept the machines running and workers employed at the Stanley Tools plant for a number of years during the height of the Great Depression. It’s a great story, demonstrating ingenuity and putting employees first. Stanley highlighted this story as part of an anniversary program a few years ago. And where did our researchers find an example of this toy? On eBay, for about $20.
Orchestrating an internal Discovery Program is usually more challenging than hiring an external researcher, but it’s also potentially more rewarding. Companies can elevate their history by enlisting current and former employees to help collect artifacts or insights. We’ve seen these programs range from one-off collection drives or events to ongoing communications and desktop technology solutions that enable employees to share historical images and documents anytime they want.
If you’re planning to use internal resources for discovery, here’s a few tips to make your program successful:
- Leverage a leader. Programs that are championed by senior leaders gain attention. An initial communication from a senior sponsor that effectively positions the program within the context of business priorities goes a long way toward overcoming the initial inertia associated with new programs. Comments in subsequent communications from the senior sponsors are equally important for keeping the program top of mind.
- Target effectively. Those most likely to have physical or digital items include not just longstanding employees but also former employees and families of founders.
- Seed the program with what you want. It’s important to give employees an idea of what you’re hoping to find.
- Ensure employees tell you what it is before you take it. This isn’t an excuse for people to empty their closets and dump thousands of keyrings from the 1989 annual conference on the company. Prepare a deed of gift for selected items, so there are no issues later in regard to ownership.
- Connect the program to a compelling issue and/or event. It may be an upcoming move to a new location, an anniversary, a recent acquisition, a specific project, or some other strategic initiative or event. Aligning the program with something that clearly matters to the business gives people a sense of purpose and urgency. The program could also serve as an adjunct at the event—for example, an annual meeting could include “show and tell” sessions or include an oral history booth where longstanding employees can record their recollections.
- Proactively manage the process. One of the biggest mistakes we see is when companies create the tools, push them out and then wait for materials to roll in. It doesn’t normally work that easily. It’s important to delegate responsibilities and train people across locations or departments, adjusting tactics based on what is working well or not working well.
- Communicate to internal audiences often and in simple terms. Periodic reminders help. So do bespoke events such as a company equivalent of Antiques Roadshow. Companies can even mix in rewards like “Find of the Month,” with some incentive for the most unusual or profound item. Wherever possible, don’t just highlight the item—give praise to the finder/donor, as well.
- Ensure you’re capturing more than “items.” Most company materials from the past 15 years are digital. In addition, many of the greatest “assets” are people’s stories that have not been recorded. Capturing digital and spoken assets is important.
- Organize and prepare. Setting up the structure for how you will collect, catalog, document and track incoming materials is critical. A solid foundation will help you efficiently accession materials, address legal issues and avoid other problems.
And above all . . .
- Make it easy and fun! This shouldn’t be a hassle or chore.
Discovery Programs offer an opportunity to do many things for companies, even those without an organized archives. These programs can fill in the gaps of your history, expand (or challenge) established narratives and company lore, and shed new light on where you’ve been as an organization. An internally driven program can also be a unifying, culture-enhancing vehicle that engages employees in finding and learning more about who the company is and what it did to survive and thrive over time.