Every organisation needs a Historian (Cofiadur)

Why do organisations need historians? In straightforward language, to avoid repeating the very obvious mistakes of the past. In addition, I’d suggest that it’s to help cope with ‘policy boomerangs’ and ‘faddism archaeology’. Organisational memory can be a fragile and ephemeral thing.

So, if was in charge… every organisation of up to 150 people you would have someone with a designated, ‘formal’ role of historian as part of their job. A keeper of the memory; one who remembers; a chronicler or Cofiadur if you fancy the Welsh version.

The Cofiadur/Historian would exist for every ‘unit’ of 150 people in the organisation. There is a reason for organising this around groups of 150 people; to do with Dunbar’s Number. The thinking behind Dunbar’s Number is that 150 people is the optimum number of people for an ‘organisation group’. It links to the number of social connections we can remember. There’s an explanation of Dunbar’s Number here, where Swedish Tax Inspectors and companies like Gore Tex have used it successfully in their organisations.

But, I’m not in charge. So, I’m going to have to convince you with something else. How about the Museum of Failed Products, Policy Boomerangs and Faddism Archaeology?

Policy Boomerangs and Faddism Archaeology. I need to thank Jack Shaw from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy who got my neurons firing with this Twitter Thread, reporting on the number of ‘Practicing Historians’ employed by Central Government.

Image Source: @JackShawLPC https://twitter.com/JackShawLPC/status/1512016411396349960?cxt=HHwWkIC5_ci64fspAAAA

The disappointing news is that the number of ‘Practicing Historians’, people employed formally in the role of ‘Historian’, is less than 40. Set against the context of over 460,000 Civil Servants this is a very small percentage! It would be over 3,000 Historians if you followed the logic of my 150 rule (another good reason why I’m not in charge).

The low numbers of Historians and lack of objective institutional memory is effectively the point of the Thread from Jack. When it comes to developing policy, you ignore your history at your peril. The comments are just as enlightening as the post. Some people make the point that there are actually lots of Civil Servants that are qualified as Historians; but they don’t necessarily work formally in that role to help inform policy. There’s also a comment about the United States Government taking the role of Historian more seriously, which did remind me of the fact that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission employed Historians, which I’ve touched on previously.

I’d recommend a look at the Thread and comments, here are some of my main observations:

  • Policy Boomerangs. I did pick up some lovely concepts like “policy making is poorer without a better understanding of the ‘longue duree’ (the long term)”. I’d agree with that and the phenomenon where some policies keep coming back around, like a ‘Policy Boomerang’. Matt Wyatt talks about this in the Organisational Goldilocks Zone of a 4 year cycle (here). In straightforward terms institutional memory is necessary to help us solve long term problems. Which is where the Historians come in, pointing out the policy boomerangs and the recycling of things that never worked in the past. Which leads me onto…
  • Faddism Archaeology. There’s a lovely description in the Thread of ‘regeneration archaeology’ where economic regeneration policies from previous administrations are ‘rejuvenated’ despite any evidence of previous success. I’d argue that this goes well beyond the area of policy and is alive and well in the wider world of management practice. ‘Fads’ from the past are dug up, repackaged and ‘sold’ to the new generation of aspiring leaders and managers to help boost performance – or solve the latest problem. I really think we need Historians in this space to stop us wasting money, like we did in the past. Here’s something I wrote a while back on ‘Silver Bullet Syndrome and Richard Pascale’s Management Fads’.
  • The Museum of Failed Products. Ages ago I asked a question, Do we need a Public Services Museum of Failed Products? This was prompted by the fact that there is an actual Museum of Failed Products in the commercial world. People who read the post said “yes”, but others also pointed out that this sort of thing already exists in places like the National Archives and the reports of audit organisations. The point is that we don’t pay much attention to these records… There are a couple things going on here, sometimes Corporate Amnesia is a convenient practice if you’ve done things you want to deliberately forget. The other point is that if you don’t have formal Historians, there’s nobody around to do the ‘remembering’.

You can’t keep living in the past… There is of course a negative side to ‘too much remembering’. Shiny Transformation Types will argue that living in the past is holding us back from a better future. I’d agree, up to a point, but we do need to remember what has come before us. Completely ignoring the past can very easily lead to repeating mistakes. If it helps, just think of ‘history’ as another source of ‘evidence’ or ‘data’ to support better decision making.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. There’s not much in the world that is totally ‘new’. There will be a history of something that leads up to the point where we are now.
  2. Understanding ‘what came before’ can help to make a better decision now and for the future. At the minimum it can help you avoid the obvious mistakes of the past.
  3. Taking a ‘long view’ backwards takes as much effort as thinking about the impact of today’s actions on future generations. We need to be deliberate and purposeful about doing both. We need Historians as well as Futurologists.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

1 Response

  1. In healthcare, the first thing you do before attempting any intervention, is to ‘take a history’. Essentially explore the events and situations that got the person to this point. Don’t laugh, one MDT I worked with coded their patients with a no: a score of 6 got a gentle smile, whereas 46 got a builder’s breath! It was the height of the patient’s medical notes in inches!

    Ignore History at your peril, but perhaps more importantly it immediately puts all those people with some skin in the game, on high alert. They turn to each other with a furrowed brow followed by a turned up nose that means “oh no, another bloody numpty!”

    I wonder what the score could be for an organisation?

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