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The OCR Glossary

Corporate History

Michael Rowlinson

Corporate history can be defined as a genre of written narrative history that has as its object the history of a corporate body. The term corporate body here refers to a corporation in the broadest sense as an entity that has a proper name and a legal existence, such as business organizations, trade unions, schools, universities, regiments, or municipalities. This entry first covers the prevalence of corporate history in corporate communication, such as websites; corporate history and the philosophy of history; and bias and objectivity in commissioned corporate history. It then gives an example of best practice in commissioned corporate history, details arguments for corporations to commission corporate history, and discusses how corporate histories can deal with the dark side of a corporation’s past.

Almost all large organizations give an account of their history. This can be demonstrated by visiting the websites of major corporations, where the home page usually has a section called “About Us,” or something like it, and within a few clicks, some historical account of the corporation can be found. The quality of the historical content in these webpages varies greatly, but clearly there is an expectation that corporate websites should contain a historical account of the organization. These webpages are one component of what can be called corporate history, along with published histories and various other forms of publication, such as company magazines for employees or consumers. These publications offer accounts of the history of an organization, often for commemorative purposes, such as an anniversary of the founding of an organization.

Corporate reputation is partly a product of past behavior. Therefore, history constitutes a vital component of corporate reputation. However, there is a tension between two ways of considering corporate history in relation to corporate reputation. These two views derive from the double meaning of the word history. As philosophers of history have noted, history refers both to the past itself and to the narratives or accounts that are constructed to represent the past in the present.

Academic business historians who accept commissions to write corporate histories, such as Harvard Business School professor Geoffrey Jones, maintain that corporate reputation can be enhanced by an objective, critical account of an organization’s history. By contrast, leading organizational scholars such as Roy Suddaby have suggested that corporate history is a form of rhetorical history produced for a strategic purpose by and for organizations.

Partly, this tension arises from the dual role of academic business historians. Business history as an academic field of research often requires access to the private archives held by business, and one way to gain access to these archives is to write a commissioned corporate history of an extant business. A commissioned corporate history may well be objective in an academic sense, in terms of providing detailed citations to all the sources consulted in the archives and a sound justification for any judgments made. However, a corporate history also has to conform to the constraints of the genre by providing a coherent narrative of a particular organization’s history, rather than a comparative study of the organization in relation to others or a test of current academic theories. Of course, many if not most corporate histories are not written by academic business historians. But business historians maintain that corporate histories written by journalists or long-standing employees are more likely to suffer from obvious bias and less likely to be seen as credible objective accounts of an organization’s history.

The best corporate histories written by academic business historians, such as Jones’s Renewing Unilever: Transformation and Tradition, manage to combine a theoretically informed focus on key themes along with a strong narrative of the company. The production of such a volume requires the commitment of considerable resources from an organization, along with access to all archives and editorial independence for the author. Most commissioned corporate histories lack the resources or the authorial independence of an established academic, required to produce a definitive history that may then be seen as an important contribution to historiography in its own right. This raises the question of the purpose of corporate history. It is not clear why some organizations aspire to commission academically respectable works that will be seen as objective, insofar as objectivity is regarded as possible or desirable, while others are content to produce commemorative corporate history that is unlikely to be seen as a contribution to historiography.

One argument for producing corporate history is that lessons can be learned from the past, and the more accurately the past is represented the less likely an organization is to repeat past mistakes. This leads historians and consultants to argue for the preservation of archives by organizations to enhance organizational memory and improve decision making. Another argument for corporate history is that it represents a form of corporate social responsibility. This is particularly relevant for instances of what could be seen in retrospect as corporate irresponsibility; the most salient example is the record of corporations during the Third Reich in Germany. Many German companies have faced challenges to their corporate reputations from revelations about their role in Nazi Germany.

In response to challenges concerning their conduct during the Third Reich, a series of German companies have set up independent historical commissions, usually led by leading historians, to reexamine the history of their relationship with the Nazi regime. The weighty tomes produced by these commissions are by no means uncontroversial, but they demonstrate how a past that is potentially damaging for corporate reputation can be dealt with responsibly in the present through a specific form of corporate history. Clearly, lightweight commemorative corporate history would not be appropriate for discussing the role of corporations in something so serious as the Holocaust, and it was the tendency to gloss over the period of the Third Reich in such publications that contributed to the problems for some German companies.

It would be sinister and no doubt counterproductive if it were suggested that the past itself can or should be managed to enhance corporate reputation, but the wish to avoid any such suggestion may lead to a neglect of corporate history in relation to corporate reputation. Increasingly, corporations have come to realize that as a representation of the past, corporate history can be managed. For some purposes, such as the investigation of corporate involvement in war, slavery, and racism, properly researched academic corporate history may be required, whereas for commemorative purposes corporate history may require little actual historical research. In a sense, corporate history is increasingly outsourced, with consultancies such as the History Factory offering services to corporations from archiving through to the production of academic corporate histories or commemorative events for various stakeholders in an organization.

Delahaye, A., Booth, C., Clark, P., Procter, S., & Rowlinson, M. (2009). The genre of corporate history. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 22(1), 27–48.

Jones, G. (2005). Renewing Unilever: Transformation and tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rowlinson, M., Hassard, J., & Decker, S. (2014). Research strategies for organizational history: A dialogue between historical theory and organization theory. Academy of Management Review, 39(3), 250–274.

Suddaby, R., Foster, W. M., & Trank, C. Q. (2010). Rhetorical history as a source of competitive advantage. In J. A. C. Baum & J. Lampel (Eds.), Globalization of strategy research (Vol. 27, pp. 147–173). London: Emerald.

See Also

Business History; Business Journalism; Corporate Communication; Public Relations

See Also

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