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Enabling companies to exploit their business archives

Peter Scott enabling companies

Companies typically find it very problematic to assess the value of their archival resources, particularly for potential stakeholders external to the firm. Three leading UK companies: Marks & Spencer, BT, and Boots, sought evidence of the value of their corporate archives to external users, to inform decision-making regarding major investments in these resources. Professor Peter Scott, a member of Henley Business School’s Centre for International Business History (CIBH), devised appropriate criteria and undertook appraisals, which showed that these archives contained very valuable resources for academics and other external stakeholders. The assessments were central to considerable new investments in these archives to increase accessibility, both physically and online. This not only greatly increased interaction with the users he had identified, but also other groups – from school children to retired staff. Furthermore, these initiatives (and major grant funding they supported) led to much stronger internal use of the archives, for a range of corporate activities, from marketing to strategic planning.

Professor Scott assessed the archive collections according to three criteria:

1. The economic and societal importance of the company. This included the economic, social, and cultural importance of the sector(s) in which it operates; the company’s market share, longevity, and record of innovation (both technical and managerial); the extent to which it has influenced the managerial practices of other companies; the distinctiveness of its corporate culture; and its impacts on stakeholders such as customers, policy-makers, and staff.

2. The comprehensiveness of the archives: the size of the collections, the breadth of the records, chronological coverage (are certain eras of the company’s activities poorly represented, for example early records?) and the extent to which the records provide good coverage of activities that the company is well-known for (for example: innovative marketing, personnel, or product development activities).

3. The quality of the materials; the potential value of the information that could be extracted from them. This involves examining those activities where the company was particularly innovative, or successful, and assessing to what extent the relevant records capture the key processes involved, together with the impacts of these innovations.

Professor Scott prepared a detailed report for each company. The reports identified the valuable features and overall importance of the archive and the types of external stakeholders who would find them of value. He also subsequently published a series of articles in leading journals and book chapters (partly in collaboration with two other members of CIBH (Professor James Walker and Dr Andrew Hull), largely based on archival evidence he had first identified during the reviews. The articles also encouraged the archivists to build further links with the academic community, supported in some cases by successful major grant applications that used these reports as key evidence. Meanwhile the companies have also capitalised on their archives to an unprecedented extent – for example both M&S and Boots have embedded their heritage, as revealed in their archives – in recent advertising and marketing campaigns.