Too many UK companies fail to see the point of history

July 06, 2007

US companies take their corporate history far more seriously than most of their UK counterparts, according to a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). American companies are more likely to draw attention to official published histories on their websites, more likely to invest in historically orientated visitor attractions or museums, such as The World of Coca Cola in Atlanta, and more likely to publish official histories.

By taking a more low key approach to their corporate past, UK companies may be failing to capitalise on a range of potential business benefits, argues researcher Professor Michael Rowlinson based at Queen Mary, University of London. "Clearly visitor attractions can be businesses in their own right," he suggests. "But more importantly, many customers put some store by the fact that a company has a long and recognisable history. And companies who actively remind us of their history, their heritage and hence their corporate identity, may be helping to strengthen consumers' views of their longevity and trustworthiness."

A survey of the websites, annual reports and directories of more than 85 US and UK companies reveals that nearly all companies produce historical accounts of themselves. However, the quality of the historical material is extremely variable and many companies could vastly improve the way in which they present their history to the public.

For example, the survey shows that within two or three clicks, historical content can be found in the websites of nearly all large companies. But this often takes the form of a timeline which, while displaying the web designer's mastery of technical gizmos, does little to tell a coherent story of a company's past. "Dry facts with no story are unlikely to grab any reader's attention," Professor Rowlinson points out. Nor are the scholarly business histories favoured by some large companies likely to attract a particularly wide audience.

Yet some businesses employ highly innovative ways of publicising their past. HSBC, for example, commissioned a History Wall for the entrance of its London headquarters. Composed of nearly 4,000 images from the Group's past, it combines the characteristics of a gallery, a library and a work of contemporary art. And, for its 25th anniversary, Microsoft produced its own book, insideout: Microsoft - In Our Own Words (2000) in which, almost all the text is composed of direct quotes from employees, who are listed alphabetically on the inside and back covers.

An accurate portrayal of a company's history is, Professor Rowlinson believes, vitally important to ensuring a robust corporate identity. And hiring prominent historians to write your business history may prove problematic if they employ their own historical interpretation to produce a convincing story.

"Companies play an important role in society," Professor Rowlinson concludes. "Their history helps to inform customers about who they are. If, like many organisations today, they are serious about pursuing a corporate social responsibility agenda in terms of ethical practices then they should also be honest about how they represent their past."
-end-
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT: Professor Michael Rowlinson, Tel: 020 7882 6323 or email: m.rowlinson@qmul.ac.uk Charles Booth, Tel: 0117 328 3456 or email: charles.booth@uwe.ac.uk

ESRC Press Office:

Alexandra Saxon Tel: 01793 413032, email: alexandra.saxon@esrc.ac.uk

NOTES FOR EDITORS:

  1. The research report 'Corporate History, Narrative and Business Knowledge' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the ESRC Evolution of Business Knowledge (EBK) research programme. The research was carried out by Professor Michael Rowlinson of Queen Mary, University of London assisted by Mr Charles Booth, Professor Peter Clark, Dr Agnes Delahaye, and Professor Stephen Procter.

  2. The research is based on a survey of 36 British companies in the 2004 Fortune Global 500 ranked by revenue, 46 US companies from the Global 500, plus the joint British and Dutch companies Unilever and Royal Dutch/Shell Group and companies including Microsoft (US), Bertelsmann (Germany) and News Corp. (Aus). Researchers analysed websites, annual reports, entries in directories and, for a smaller sample of companies, published company histories.

  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research relevant to business, the public sector and voluntary organisations. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2007 - 08 is £181 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

  4. Queen Mary, University of London. Queen Mary is one of the leading colleges in the federal University of London, with over 11,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students, and an academic and support staff of around 2,600. Queen Mary is a research focused higher education institution, with over 80 per cent of research staff working in departments where research is of international or national excellence (RAE 2001). It has a strong international reputation, with around 20 per cent of students coming from over 100 countries. The College has 21 academic departments and institutes organised into three sectors: Science and Engineering; Humanities, Social Sciences and Laws; and the School of Medicine and Dentistry. It has an annual turnover of £200 million, research income worth £43 million, and it generates employment and output worth £500 million to the UK economy each year. Queen Mary's roots lie in four historic colleges: Queen Mary College, Westfield College, St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College and the London Hospital Medical College

  5. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

  6. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as 'good'.


Economic & Social Research Council

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