This year my wife has been studying family history, most recently doing a subject in which she had to collate a series of pictures of her mother at different stages in her life and tell the stories behind the photos. Joan died 16 years ago so my wife was totally reliant on any notes on the photographs along with existing family history, insofar as there is any, and the recollections of surviving members of her mum's generation and their offspring.
Watching her pull this information together was a good lesson in the importance of keeping notes and records of our lives – in how what seems trivial today could be of deep interest to those who follow us. There were many frustrated hours spent trying to decipher some images – work that could have been avoided had those images been labelled.
This applies as much to the business context as it does the family one. In fact you could argue that it is even more important in the business context. Family membership tends to be long term and from a young age, so even without trying we tend to share and absorb some history along the way. In contrast, people come and go from businesses all the time, and there is a real risk that if history is not captured it will simply evaporate.
The trick with capturing history effectively (whether family or business) is to do it continuously. Here are five things you could be doing to achieve this.
- Compile, circulate and retain a regular internal newsletter. 'Highlights of the month', 'Lessons we've learnt' and interviews with 'milestone' employees are all potential fodder. It doesn't need to be printed as long as it happens and all issues are properly stored for the future.
- Review every major project and document the 'lessons learned'. Importantly, ensure that these lessons are reviewed at the start of any similar project to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
- Create a shared repository of photos, possibly using a 'cloud' service like Dropbox. Encourage employees to take and upload photos and make sure someone has the job of regularly sorting them into projects or time periods.
- Interview employees on departure. This should be done regardless, for 'What are we doing right and wrong?' reasons, but could also include 'highlights' and a couple of favourite stories for posterity. This is particular important for long-serving employees and CEOs. Ideally these interviews should be audio recorded.
- Maintain a media file of any trade magazine articles or news articles that mention or involve your business. Make the maintenance of this file a responsibility attached to a specific role to ensure that it continues over the long term.
The point here is not to necessarily keep a running, coherent history of your business. Rather it is to ensure that when the day comes that someone wants to write that history – perhaps to celebrate a company milestone – that the resources are there to draw on. And that they are in order, clearly labelled and don't rely on others' memories for context.
Once all that is in place, go home and pull out all those shoeboxes of photos and label them too. Oh ... and take my wife's advice: interview your elderly relatives while they're still with you!
As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.