“Corporations resemble nations in that they reflect the accumulation of past events and the shaping force of underlying genetics that have roots in prior generations.” Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies
There is plenty of talk these days about saving Hong Kong’s historical buildings from the wrecker’s ball. The purchase of Kom Tong Hall by the Government, the preservation of the Central Police Station and the call for the protection of the Star Ferry and Queen’s pier reflect growing public concern about the link between historical evidence and identity.
But what about the heritage that lies within companies? What value can we put on both the tangible and intangible heritage within our own businesses? And how can we maximize it?
There are a number of long-established companies in Hong Kong that use their heritage well. Jardines have corporate archives in the UK managed partly by Cambridge University.
John Swire & Sons Limited is well known for its understanding of the importance of its own heritage, and works with Bristol University’s Department of Humanities as a major sponsor of the Historical Photographs of China project.
Sir Michael Kadoorie has commissioned a project team to acquire and collate documents and testimonies of historical significance relating to the Kadoorie Family, China Light and Power, and Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Group, amongst others. HSBC maintains an excellent archive that maintains records of the banks activities since 1865.
One mistake that many younger companies make is to think that you need a hundred years of history and a huge archive to have a heritage worth preserving and sharing. Given Hong Kong’s dynamism and the incredible growth of China, many younger companies have some amazing stories to tell.
And as with all matters of heritage, time is of the essence. As members of staff change stories of the company’s evolution get lost. If company events are not properly recorded they can disappear without trace. Key documents, photographs, awards and artifacts can get lost or damaged simply because no one has been tasked to look after them.
Often it is the marketing department that has the responsibility of keeping the torch of the company’s history alight. But with so many other demands on its attention and only so many hours in the day, corporate heritage can end up being a neglected resource, lost amongst the bright lights of new initiatives. It is also unusual for a company to have in-house expertise with a special focus on historical archiving and its use.
But it’s not simply about retaining a good archive. History is largely about compelling storytelling. For instance, what happens when a Senior Manager or CEO retires? All that wisdom, all those stories of the company’s evolution accumulated over decades can be lost overnight.
And that heritage has real value. A well-told company story, evidenced by archive material, has the power to effectively communicate who you are, transmit values, share knowledge, provide a springboard for action, and inspire both new and existing employees.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Hongkong Business. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Chris White is Managing Director at Winkle-picker Ltd and Your Curator.