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Oral Histories and the Enduring Value of Institutional Memories

September 27, 2016 • History Factory

This is a photograph of an old audio recorder from the 1960s or 1970s.
History is a preserve-it-or-lose-it commodity. So what do you do to preserve the things that were said but never recorded about your company? How do you unearth the motivations underlying past decisions? Or record for posterity’s sake the wisdom and philosophies of the people running an organization in the present day?

Answer: You conduct oral histories because stories captured today can have valuable applications in the years ahead.

“Facts and figures are important. Every organization needs a genealogy, but when you want to get at the meaning of events, you have to sit down with the people who actually lived through them.

It doesn’t matter if an interview subject is an emotional, touchy-feely kind of person. Give someone the opportunity to recount pivotal moments in their career and you’ll unearth some deep-seated feelings and insights. Sometimes, a good oral history session even acts as therapy, allowing individuals or entire organizations to exercise demons that have been haunting them for years. 

Group oral histories can be cathartic, fueled by the rapid-fire exchange of people sitting in a room, sharing insights. When we conducted our first series of videotaped oral histories for the Greater Washington Board of Trade back in 1987, we gathered together small groups, which included a former mayor, business leaders and civil rights leaders, in order to share their experiences. 

The discussions were organized around specific themes or epochs. One group was invited to talk about D.C. during the riots in the late 1960s; another group discussed the suburbanization of Virginia in the 1970s. And so on.

We guided the discussion and let everyone feed off each other’s thoughts. You didn’t see the institution through one perspective; you saw it through multiple lenses at the same moment, which provided a depth of knowledge that was truly stunning. That project was so successful, in fact, that The George Washington University acquired the tapes for its own archive on the history of the nation’s capital.”

Some of the most trivial events in the corporate world tend to get documented the most, and some of the most important decisions tend to get documented the least. Oral histories act like a safety net for all of the valuable information stored in your company’s collective past. They’re tools for discovery and can forge connections between leaders from wholly different eras, linking together the past and the future in unique ways.

The above is a passage from Start with the Future and Work Back: A Heritage Management Manifesto. The book offers a unique look at how leading global organizations are leveraging their heritage assets to drive real business advantage. 

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