When most people think of archives, their mind goes straight to documents and pictures. The problem with that is that much of the time, the most important decisions in a company’s history get made in the moments in between. Oral histories are one way to ensure that those moments aren’t lost to time. They are especially powerful when the individuals telling their story are the ones who were there at the start. Our work on an oral history project with Discover Financial illustrates the power of capturing the founders’ stories in their own words.

The Discover card was being portrayed as the cheap, goofy stepchild of the credit card industry, and they wanted to put an end to that misrepresentation. It was beginning to affect morale, in part because so many new Discover employees simply didn’t understand the history of their own company.

We knew we could change that. And we did. One of the advantages of working with a 25-year-old company is that you still have the ability to conduct oral histories with its founders. In the case of Discover, these early employees were referred to as “the Dawners,” named after the “Dawn of Discover” television ads that launched the card during Super Bowl XX.

This is a photograph from a corporate history book published by Discover. It contains oral history interviews from employees who were around when the company first started.

The Dawners reminded us, the Discover card was unlike any other card on the market: a credit card that provided people with cash back on all their purchases. Today, you can find cash-back cards anywhere, but in the mid-1980s it was a rarity. Ultimately, it was Discover’s appeal to consumers that propelled its growth.  

And then came years of antitrust litigation, spurred by MasterCard and Visa. Year after year, Discover charged headfirst into some extraordinary battles and won virtually every one of them. It was a great story that Discover’s new employees simply didn’t know.

How did we get those stories? By conducting a massive number of individual and group oral histories with people up and down the chain of command. We talked to Discover employees from coast to coast: people in sales, at call centers, and in development.

Meanwhile, the company conducted a series of employee surveys that gauged baseline attitudes and engagement, hoping to see if our work had an impact on morale. It certainly did. Over the course of the company’s 25th anniversary year, we rolled out a series of short digital stories and documentary videos based on our archival research and all of the oral histories we had conducted. Biweekly multiple-choice history quizzes and quarterly anniversary sections followed, as well as an e-publication highlighting the culture of Discover that was based on employee responses to questions.

When the anniversary year ended, Discover monitored its employee engagement and concluded that the program was an unmitigated success. Some 9,000 of the company’s 11,000 employees participated in its anniversary events. Surveys also revealed that 80 percent of respondents felt increased enthusiasm about working for Discover, while 88 percent felt that the anniversary recaptured the spark and spirit that people felt at Discover’s inception.

In the years since, this project has continued to play a central role in Discover’s identity as a trailblazer in the industry. Without it, thousands of hours of stories would have disappeared forever, and with them, any chance at the company reconnecting with its authentic self.

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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