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Looking Ahead: Archives in 2021

December 14, 2020 • History Factory

As we put 2020 in the rearview mirror, we wanted a glimpse of what 2021 might hold for the creation and management of corporate archives. To that end, we sat down with two members of our team—Jason Dressel and Tim Schantz—as well as archival consultant and thought leader Neal Stimler to get their perspectives on how the year unfolded and what’s in store for the future.

HF: How has the landscape for archives changed going into 2021?

Neal: We’re seeing a more complex landscape of different asset classes and types. So if we think about digital asset management as something that was more limited to audio, video, and images, the things that people are producing today, which could become their heritage tomorrow, are actually much more complex. Things like augmented reality, 3D models, written code, software applications, video games— we’re seeing people use different tools to communicate their brands and stories. Archives need to adapt to capture and preserve these different asset forms and formats.

Tim: In the use of archives for risk mitigation, not much has changed in the last year. Yet the need to be mindful of and protect corporate information is as great as if not greater than ever, particularly as the settlements against companies have grown in financial terms. In the use of archives for cost savings, changes in the capacity for access, for repurposing, for strong search functionality all help to cut down the time to access content in formats that can be republished and repurposed meaningfully. Archives are becoming more affordable and more user-friendly. I’d add that for some sectors—for example,  spirits, automotive, and sports franchises and leagues—archival assets naturally lend themselves to licensing of heritage content or other means for monetizing that content.

Jason: Building on Tim’s point, an interesting aside is how archival assets have been used to drive revenue during the pandemic. A lot of us who are obsessed with sports this past summer were watching old baseball games, old basketball games, old football games, because literally everything on ESPN needed to use archival assets as there were few live sports due to lockdowns. The only other thing we could watch was livestreaming and watching current NBA players play video games, because ESPN had nothing else that they could deliver from a programming standpoint. Similarly with the major networks, there was a period of time where they couldn’t get actors on set, so they were basically showing a lot of reruns. So one of the filters of the pandemic for the value of archives for those specific industries was literally about providing the fuel to continue to propel their entertainment platforms.

HF: What other role did archival collections play in 2020 and going into 2021?

Jason: Information and context. With some of our clients, they turned to their archives to find communications from their past—how they were communicating to their employees about safety measures during the polio and other health pandemic outbreaks in their history. Learnings from the past helped shape their plans and approaches to dealing with the current pandemic.

Tim: Arguably the most significant but the least measurable aspect is the heritage value of brands. Take Brooks Brothers. Even the head office building was outside of the Chapter 11 filing in 2020. There’s little tangible asset base to the company. It is all brand. And so when it emerged from Chapter 11, ABG paid $325 million for something. That something was the brand value of Brooks Brothers and what it could do with it. And I would argue that a large component of Brooks Brothers’ value is its heritage. It’s a way that archives and the value of archives moves the needle on aggregate market value of a brand.

Neal: Building on Tim’s point, our relationship with brands has changed a lot this year. It’s become much more intimate and personal. It’s on our phones, it’s on our streaming devices at home, and we’re not seeing brands in the way that we used to see them. Think about Times Square in New York. That used to be the place to show your brand. Well, nobody is in Times Square much anymore. A brand is becoming much more intimate, and as such heritage has become more intimate because it’s close to us.

Tim: With Times Square, you basically had a single banner or loops. But when you’re communicating with millions of people to their smartwatches or phones, and with algorithms to target, what better thing than to have very precise heritage content to push out to people?

HF: What challenges do you foresee facing the capturing and management of corporate archives going into 2021?

Tim: In the period from 1995 to 2010, you have content born in a digital era that is at high risk of loss and needs to have preservation techniques focused on it, or that content will be gone forever. It’s content that was born digital that had not been archived in real-time due to the volume and rapid rate of technological change. It’s what we call the digital black hole. It’s not just a 2021 issue. With every passing year, the challenge becomes greater. And if it is lost, it needs to be augmented by other techniques, be it oral histories or discovery, to make sure that those gaps in the collections are not lost forever. Another challenge is sweeping potentially valuable heritage content into generic enterprise records management systems. Without careful selection or curation of material, something with historical value sits alongside unusable content. It’s easy to get the content into storage; it is difficult to get it out and selected after the fact. In a digital age, imagine that cost of storage being multiplied exponentially by the sheer amount of data that, if not preselected, is very difficult to gather back in a comprehensible form.

Neal:  Minimal and unstructured data is a challenge. Much of what’s being developed today uses third-party apps, such as Canvas, which are tools that create content and use brand assets on the fly. So we’ll have a file name to work with, maybe some alt tags, but nothing that gives assets any heritage context. We’ll have more of these assets going forward, especially with increased use of AI. Increased automation means more unstructured data, making it more difficult to use it to showcase or support your heritage.

Jason: Organizational disruption, organizations going through upheaval either because they’ve gone out of business or they’re changing ownership. They’re trying to figure out, given massive changes in their real estate portfolios, how they can downsize their real estate footprint, and what kind of space they need when people are working in more virtual and decentralized environments. People working this way are going to want to access archives that they can no longer just walk down the hall to potentially grab. And companies may need the space that those archives currently take up, to optimize their space utilization. Regardless, organizational disruption will create challenges—and opportunities—for companies that want to not only preserve their heritage but maximize its value by making it accessible.

To learn more about History Factory’s services,  visit our Archival Services page or read our comprehensive “Guide to Company Archives.”

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