One of our colleagues, Raymond de Villiers, is doing formal post grad work in Future Studies. He is particularly interested in future backward scenarios and alternative histories as methodologies of future planning (Google these terms if you’re interested, or contact me for more info). He got me interested in this stuff, and so my radar is always on for articles on the topic of looking backwards to look forwards.

Here is something I found in a recent edition of The Economist.

Past rites

Sep 6th 2007
From The Economist print edition
How companies can benefit from looking backwards as well as forwards

HISTORY is more or less bunk, declared Henry Ford in 1916. The company that bears his name is not so dismissive of the past. Ford’s website has a prominent heritage section captioned “Automotive history begins here”; visitors can also call up a splashy site created to celebrate the carmaker’s centenary in 2003. Ford is not alone in seeking to capitalise on its history. Bruce Weindruch, founder of The History Factory, a “heritage management” firm that helps companies to document and exploit their past, says that his firm is growing by 30-40% annually.

Some companies are more creative in their use of history than others. HSBC’s History Wall, a striking art installation at the bank’s London headquarters, is made up of 3,743 images drawn from the bank’s archives and arranged in chronological order. Wells Fargo, a bank founded in 1852, plays heavily on its role in the development of the American West. It runs nine free museums that tell the story of its expansion and has a fleet of 21 reproduction stagecoaches that appear in some 900 parades and community events every year.

Even these activities are dwarfed by those of two other American classics, Coca-Cola and Harley-Davidson. In May Coca-Cola opened a new corporate museum in Atlanta, Georgia, that is expected to pull in more than 1m visitors annually, paying up to $15 each. Attractions include the first Coke cans to go into space, a functioning bottling line and a tasting lounge. Harley-Davidson is due to open a $75m museum in its hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2008. Exhibits include Elvis Presley’s motorcycle and a 13-foot-long bike known as King Kong. The firm is expecting 350,000 visitors a year.

The benefits of knowing your corporate history can be very practical. Disney constantly mines its archive of old films, observes Christopher McKenna of Said Business School. Carmakers have overhauled old designs for the modern era: Volkswagen’s New Beetle and the new Fiat 500 are obvious examples. Stacey Schiesl, director of the Harley-Davidson museum, says designers use the company’s collection of historic bikes as inspiration for new products.

But the bigger payoff tends to be less tangible—that of forging stronger bonds with customers and employees. Age can by itself confer a sense of trustworthiness: brewers and bankers are fond of flaunting deep roots. Jim Gilmore, co-author of “Authenticity”, a forthcoming book, argues that history is also vital in giving companies a genuine sense of personality. Ritz-Carlton’s use of cobalt-blue glasses in its hotel dining rooms can be traced back to Boston in the 1920s, for example, where window glass that had been imported from Europe and turned blue in the New England air was a symbol of wealth. Rather than commissioning dusty biographies to mark anniversaries, Mr Gilmore reckons that firms should trawl the archives for emblematic stories of this kind.

Younger companies can use history, too. Before giving up their old jobs, the founders of innocent, a British drinks firm formed in 1998, sold an initial batch of smoothies from a market stall in London. They asked customers to put their empty bottles into one of two labelled bins to indicate whether they should focus on their new venture or stick to their day jobs. The rest, as they say, is history; the firm now uses the story to illustrate its folksy image.

Pliable though this sort of history must seem to purists, companies still cannot dodge difficult episodes in their pasts. Transparency is a must. Union Carbide, a chemicals firm, has a link to information on the deadly Bhopal gas leak in India on its home page, for example. Far more prosaically, Coca-Cola does not shy away from the failed introduction of New Coke in 1985. “It’s like kids looking at the dirty words in a dictionary,” says Mr Weindruch: people will notice if the awkward bits are missing.

Source: Economist website – may require login

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