IHR Public History Seminar: Business archives, 19th December

This week we’re talking business under the title ‘Selective History – The absence of business archives in the retelling of the past’.  Seminar convenor Judy Faraday, Partnership Archivist for the John Lewis Partnership will be in conversation with Professor Peter Scott, Director of the Centre for International Business History at Henley Business School, University of Reading, will be the main speaker.

The seminar will be held on Wednesday 19th December in the Montague Room (G26) of the Senate House, University of London, at 17:30 and followed by seasonal drinks and nibbles.  All are warmly welcome.

Thousands of dissertations, journal articles and research papers are created each year.  Some of these become seminal works used by future generations of researchers to continue their quest for the truth.  But how much truth is there if certain groups of relevant sources are not fully utilised?

This seminar will question the way business archive sources are viewed by academics and how researchers can skew the balance of research by avoiding the use of records which may be less obvious, more difficult to view or which are not located in a digital or easy to access location.

Given the perceived limitations on the use of business archives, have the academic world chosen the easy option avoiding the need to address issues around access or responsibility to the creating body, preferring the warmth of their office desks to the chilly strongrooms which may contain those nuggets of information which could add another dimension to their research?

The view from both sides of the searchroom will be discussed by Professor Peter Scott of the Henley Business School and Judy Faraday, Archivist for the John Lewis Partnership with comment designed to stimulate debate and encourage the development of a greater rapport between the academic researcher and the gatekeepers of the historical record.

The ‘endless rustle of the in-tray’: finding time for historical thinking

Rohan Butler served as the Foreign Secretary’s historical adviser from 1963-82 and was one of the leading figures in the civil service’s post-war experiment in incorporating historical perspective into the business of policymaking.  His neat and evocative phrase ‘the endless rustle of the in-tray’ (cited by Peter Beck in his illuminating study of these experiments, in the the Treasury and Foreign Office, 1950-76) points to the difficulty of finding time for long view, big issue thinking when operational demands always seem to take precedence.  This means that in times of crisis (Butler was writing about Abadan), the need for ‘action under pressure’ cannot accommodate the considered thinking necessary for good decision-making.

The institutional culture of the government department – and the broader civil service – seems from Beck’s description (based on extensive archival research) to account in large measure for this operational mind-set.  But are we any better at “resisting the rustle” now, in universities, in businesses and other organisations?

Doing this blog is one way I try to step back and look for perspectives and connections that I’d otherwise miss.  And I struggle to find the time to do so, even though my express purpose is linking history with political and public life!  So sitting down and writing this now means consciously blocking my ears, knowing that the to-do list is growing as I type.

Self-help books often recommend setting aside some time on a regular basis for doing more strategic thinking (don’t turn the email on, ignore the phone etc.)  But such good intentions are unlikely to last.  And my sense is that keeping historical thinking going means making it part of “business”.  We often think that “diarising” something is a way of signalling its importance and securing its status in our lives.  But I think that tends instead to compartmentalise it, making it separate from our lives: moveable, interchangeable, containable.  In policy, this would entail integrating historical forms of enquiry into the broader process by which policy is developed, rather than seeking historical “evidence” as a bolt-on (if at all).  I think this approach has wider relevance too.  At its simplest, it could just be asking historical questions about how an issue’s emerged or the context for a decision.

But for now, the ear-muffs must come off…

Public history and public policy: A view from across the pond

A re-blog of my recent post on the National Council on Public History’s Public History Commons, History@Work (comments welcome – please add to the original):

Looking from across the pond, the maturity and scale of public history as a discipline and a sector in the US is a striking phenomenon.  The narrative is well-established: the crisis in the academic job market; the emergence of new contexts for historical employment, in preservation, education and regeneration; the entrepreneurship of universities in structuring the supply of skilled professionals through new programmes emphasising workplace skills and experience.

The story is of course rather longer and more complex, nuanced and interesting than this, as I discovered during my comparative research on public history in different national settings.  In the UK, the contrast could not be more marked. The academic discipline here has also experienced periods of contraction and pressure.  But we have not seen the ‘push’ factor from higher education in terms of imagining (and foregrounding) the many pathways a historical education could lead to (and hence also what historical education could mean).  Nor is there much evidence of the ‘pull’ factor from employment markets such as government or business for historically-oriented roles.

The absence of such drivers for development and innovation is, I think, one element of the explanation for why public history in the UK remains rather tentative, even marginal, gaining some traction only in a few universities and remaining preoccupied with a narrower agenda than the American field.  Apart from a small number of pioneering MA courses, public history tends to be represented only by a single module in a ‘mainstream’ history programme.

One of the connections we have largely missed in the UK – to our detriment – is that between history and policy.  And here the US example is illuminating.   There have been some attempts to inform policy making–most notably the History and Policy network, which has done vital work in putting the cause of better public policy on the historian’s radar and raising the profile of the study of the past with politicians and the media.  These efforts have not, however, been located within a broader public history field.  One consequence of this, it seems to me, is that such efforts draw on the methodological models of academic history rather than seeking to create user-oriented and collaborative alternatives.

The importance of such alternatives is persuasively put by Duncan Macrae, Jnr and Dale Wittington in their 1997 work on expert advice for policy choice.  As few policy problems can be addressed by one expert community alone, cooperation and division of labour across disciplinary boundaries is needed to equip the decision-maker with the best possible advice. Communication must run, they argue, not only between experts but also between experts and users – and in both directions.  Macrae and Whittington draw attention to the benefits of having instruction in public policy analysis built into training in the basic disciplines, so that graduates are able to translate their specialism into salient policy advice (whatever the context they may work in).  History is only given a passing reference, but the work has much to offer the wandering public historian with an interest in policy.

I hope that as the academic history community in the UK develops its undergraduate and graduate programmes in public history, we will be open to such possibilities.  There is much we can learn from the US in this regard.  We should also take note of how early in the development of the professional discipline a sense of the importance of historians’ contribution to democratic institutions and processes emerged (for example, Benjamin Shambaugh’s School of Iowa Research Historians).

I am very much looking forward to hearing Shambaugh’s biographer and former NCPH President, Professor Rebecca Conard, speak at this year’s Higher Education Academy conference on Teaching History in Higher Education.  Public History can and should be so much more than museums and archives, heritage and commemoration, important as those dimensions are.  It is, in Alfred J. Andrea’s words, the application of ‘the dimension of historical time in helping to meet the practical and intellectual needs of society at large’.  And that is a definition worth aspiring to.

Parallel tracks 2: Academic/professional divides in universities

I blogged back in March about how the development of intellectual capacity and that of employability skills are too often regarded as parallel tracks in higher education.  Such false dichotomies often create impasses, and impasses inhibit the ability to adapt, respond and innovate.

Another such divide is that between academic and other staff in universities.  In newer institutions, such staff may be called ‘professional’ rather than ‘support’ staff as a way of capturing their ‘different but equal’ status in the running of the organisation.  Many other companies and organisations have taken similar measures.  As a symbol of corporate-level recognition of the contributions different roles make to the whole, this is to be welcomed.  Moves towards equalisation of pay and conditions often follow (such as the single pay spine in HE).

There is certainly more to be done to realise a university culture in which the different roles are truly valued and respected, but to see this just as an HR issue is to miss an important dimension.

As Paul Marshall, ABS Chief Executive, reminded the assembled Hertfordshire Business School in a keynote last week, we live in a VUCA world: Volatile; Uncertain; Complex and Ambiguous (and Higher Education feels to many particularly VUCA).  It wouldn’t be saying anything new to suggest that such an environment calls on a wider range of skills, experience and capacities in leaders than were needed in more stable times.

‘It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader,’ Ancona et al argued in the Harvard Business Review back in 2007, a call that resonates to an even greater extent now.  The modern executive’s role is ‘to cultivate and coordinate’ – not ‘command and control’ the actions of others.  By seeing themselves as incomplete, they can then start to rely on others to ‘make up for their missing skills.’

So we’re back to complementarity.  In an HE setting, this means building management teams with expertise in different aspects of university activity.  Many universities, particularly the newer ones, do indeed have directors of key services at the top table.  Such arrangements imply recognition of the complementarity of academic and professional roles.  But recognition solidifies those categories – and the lines of demarcation between them.  ‘Different but equal’ makes sense in theory, but in practice it makes rigid and definite what could productively be flexible and fuzzy, particularly in the VUCA world of HE.

An alternative (and complementary) way of looking at complementarity in terms of skills for HE management is to think about the individual.  An individual with an ‘academic’ role could develop complementary skills, knowledge and insights through a secondment internally, or into a company, government department or local council; one with a ‘professional’ role could do so through undertaking doctoral study, teaching or contributing to a collaborative research project.  One route that has worked is from professional practice (such as nursing, law or business) into academe.  But those transitions tend to be one-time (and therefore one-direction) movements.  They also seem to be coming under pressure from demands for academic accreditation and research activity in many universities.

Assembling such a portfolio of experience may not be for everyone.  But why would we not want our leaders to be so equipped given the uncertainties and volatilities of the future?  It wouldn’t make them ‘complete’ of course, but it might make the incompleteness more conscious and therefore productive.  Building a team, developing strategy, making decisions – these processes could all draw not just on an intellectual awareness of the need for complementary skills but a real ability to identify with the questions, concerns and priorities of the functional areas that hold those skills.

The transformation of the ‘support staff’ to the ‘professional’, even though nominally based on parity of esteem, addressed the symptoms not the problem.  Those symptoms badly needed treating, and we must finish the course.  But we shouldn’t forget the underlying problem: parallel tracks.  Maybe it’s up to each of us to be an entrepreneur in our own careers – just like Darlene Roth’s public historian – but then at least the environment needs to be conducive to innovation.  Why shouldn’t university policies support ‘academics’ to bring discipline-level nuance to website development and marketing, or ‘professionals’ to undertake the advanced studies that allow them to bring their specialist knowledge to students’ learning?  Why shouldn’t hybrid or dual roles be more common, even encouraged?  We need a new kind of blended learning and a new, more open and flexible approach to progression and recognition to help develop the incomplete leaders of tomorrow’s universities.

Complementarity in Higher Education: what does it mean for disciplines?

One of the most important concepts in the Wilson Review of University-Business Collaboration is complementarity – the idea that different institutions with different histories, different cultures, missions and identities, can play roles that support, reinforce and enhance each other in the pursuit of economic as well as social and cultural benefit.

A sector shaped by a sense of collaborative – rather than competitive – advantage would emphasise complementarity, leading universities to recognise and celebrate the strengths of others, and cross-refer businesses to the most appropriate HE partner. The potential prize is a bigger ‘pie’ to share, rather than an increasingly vicious scrap to divide up the existing pastry-encased dish.

This will be the theme for my talk tomorrow at the HE Beyond 2015 conference. In my 20 minutes I will be sticking to the corporate level, but with my new academic role I’m becoming more interested in the disciplinary dimension of policy debates. So when I spoke to the Association of Business Schools policy roundtable last month I suggested there was potential in thinking about issues such as local economic development through the lens of academic subjects. How can disciplines as distinctive forms of knowledge work together in tackling important problems, such as building (economically, socially) sustainable communities, or supporting enterprise and business growth?

Jon Wilson highlighted today at the first of the ippr/King’s Policy Unit seminars on the Future of HE that there’s often a disconnect between how management conceive of and express the purpose of higher education and how academics do so. In theory at least, there is real potential for complementarity between the ‘corporate’ and the ‘academic’ (as a disciplinary practitioner) in areas such as local economic development.

University leaders can set strategy, defining a framework that values engagement with and commitment to local impact in whatever forms fit the institution’s mission and the community’s needs. Subject area leaders such as Heads of School can then use that framework to help structure their thinking in terms of disciplinary activity – not as a constraint on creativity but the opposite, as a license for imagining and reconceiving what forms that academic endeavour could take if inspired by the idea of local impact.

I wonder how often those ‘conversations’ between the corporate and the academic dimensions of university life take place? Or do we instinctively resort to models of irreconcilability between the two? The Wilson Review highlighted the need to challenge outmoded ideas of the unbridgeable cultural divide between universities and business and debunk the myths of the ‘unresponsive university’ and the ‘unreasonable business’. Do we also need to turn our attention inwards and look for greater complementarity between corporate and academic aspirations and endeavours? This is challenging for both parties, but the potential rewards are great.

Most universities seek national and international profile and standing, at least in select areas. These goals can be compatible – not in tension – with significant and multi-faceted engagement at local level; we can be world-class at local impact, and that mission can bring global connections, for example with collaborations in teaching and research.  What is needed is commitment and imagination, both at corporate and at discipline level, to find the points of integration between local and national agendas.

—-

Afterthought: Does it make those ‘conversations’ easier if the corporate leaders share a disciplinary background with a group of academics?

Part 2: Negotiation and the uses of history in business

In Part 1 I talked about the importance of ‘placement’ for negotiation, of locating the other party within national and organisational cultural contexts as a way of understanding the likely approach to decision-making.  This involves asking historical questions that allow us to assemble synchronic and diachronic narratives to help develop that understanding.

This task is, or should be, complemented by an investment in understanding our own interests and positions.  It is easy in a negotiation to become preoccupied with the other party, to focus our attention on their background, motivations, tactics and goals, and thereby to neglect the task of reflecting on our own.

Again, I think there is an alignment with history.  As old disciplinary certainties have broken down over the last 40 years or so, a new plurality of perspectives and self-consciousness in practice have emerged.  It is now expected that historians are clear about their claims, methods and commitments and such a task involves a level of engagement with the implications of these for the analyses and accounts that result.  In a sense, historians go through a process of negotiation between self and sources – rather than a uni-directional interrogation.  We no longer ‘hard-bargain’ with our (remote) subjects to extract maximum value, rather recognise that we are ourselves also involved and hence the relationship matters.

For me, there are some potential problems.  Pluralisation is often connected to specialisation and fragmentation, a trend that has perhaps made history turn inwards, less engaged with or concerned about how it relates to, informs or participates in broader public debates and democratic processes.  A greater self-consciousness is surely an asset, but not if it drives us to a level of introspection that shuts down rather than opens up opportunities for reinvigorating and reconceptualising what history is and what historians can do.

Maybe that’s as far as the analogy between negotiation and history can go.  But analogising is probably a good habit to get into.  When reading and thinking about a topic/theme/argument, should we routinely ask: what does this mean for history?  What could history mean for this?  And how can we creatively negotiate between the two?

Negotiation and the uses of history in business

Doing the pre-reading for a course in negotiation for university staff at UCLA while sitting in the Profeta coffee house on Glendon Avenue (much recommended), I came across another intersection between ‘history’ and ‘policy’: negotiation.

In Thinking in time: the uses of history for decision-makers, Neustadt and May offer a set of ‘mini-methods’ for thinking with history when faced with a ‘decision situation’.  By looking for the story behind an issue (rather than just focusing on the ‘problem’), revisiting key presumptions and carefully inspecting analogies, the historian offer the decision-maker important insights.  At the heart of their thinking lies the idea of placement: that by locating and understanding the other party, both diachronically and synchronically, you can start to anticipate likely attitudes and hence likely actions and reactions.  The other party may be an individual, such as the leader of another country, or an organisation or group; either way, you need some knowledge of the history, the culture and the practices to make any kind of informed judgement about a course of action involving it.

In discussing Intercultural negotiations in International Business, Salacuse makes very a very similar case.  In any such situation, “it is important to know how the other side is organized, who has the authority to make commitments, and how decisions are made,” with (national) culture a key factor.  Though not a concern of the author, he does imply that history shapes the cultural values which themselves shape approaches and attitudes to negotiation in business.  Hence, for Salacuse, the political traditions in Brazil, China and Mexico may be reflected in a preference for ‘one-person leadership’ over ‘group consensus’, and a knowledge of Thai histories should prove valuable to an American tasked with forming a strategic alliance with a company in Bangkok.

Neustadt and May’s case studies involve national and international policy.  Armed conflict is a potential outcome of many of the decision situations and the parties involved come into only infrequent, high-stakes contact.  Salacuse’s parties, by contrast, face only failure to secure business deals and are by mutual consent involved in a dialogue.  Though the contexts in which authors’ methods might be put to use are very different (as are the risks and outcomes) an interesting affinity in terms of the importance of placement can be brought to the surface.

It’s difficult to gain the understanding of a national culture, or indeed an organisational culture – without asking historical questions about the underlying stories.   Understanding the individuals involved, their location within the organisation and the context for the specific negotiation likewise call for historical perspective.  Salacuse discusses the need to develop knowledge of culture and knowledge of the individual under two separate rules.  Perhaps a more explicitly historical approach would allow these to be integrated into a single rule for successful business negotiation: always invest time up front in ‘placing’ the other party, that is, in understanding its contexts.  One of the strengths of history as a discipline is that it can work with multiple levels of human identity, action and meaning.  It can locate the individual within different groupings, and those groupings within larger collectivities.

There have been some attempts, particularly in the US, to make the case for the importance of history to and in business (for example Jones and Khanna, 2006), but the potential seems to be largely unrealised in the UK.  A historical approach to business negotiation is just one option.  There’s also scope for historians to be active in their local business communities, and for businesses to be demanding their services.  For example, how about working alongside Business School colleagues to advise companies on making effective use of records in strategy and planning, or to conduct and analyse oral history programmes to preserve institutional memory and put it to work for the future?

For me, this is an important other dimension to the role of universities in local economic development, a view I shared at a recent Association of Business Schools policy forum on the challenge of economic regeneration.  In the sector, we often talk about the ‘corporate’ dimension – the contribution universities make as large employers, with their procurement budgets and through staff and student spending.  Higher education is a major export market, worth £7.9bn 2009, and a draw for inward investment.  But in doing so, do we miss or underplay the academic dimension?  Can the disciplines, with their distinct yet often complementary forms of knowledge and methods, have real social and economic impact at local level?