In Praise of Archives
Post by Stephen Cummings and Todd Bridgman
When we visited the Tavistock Institute archive in 2013 it looked like it had seen better days. It consisted of box files pushed into cupboards. But all the documents were intact and are now gradually being catalogued, thanks to Juliet Scott and her team at the TIHR Archive Project, with support from the Wellcome Library.1
The survival, maintenance, and use of this archive (and all archives) is important for two reasons. One is fairly obvious. The other is not so obvious, but just as important.
The first reason is now a well-worn phrase: ‘those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it’. This effect of a lack of historical awareness that good archives can facilitate may have devastating consequences – lurching from one form of oppression to another, for example; or more mundane effects – such as great effort exerted to arrive at something already known (AKA reinventing the wheel). Archives can help us see how bad things emerged so that we can work against their re-emergence; and make us more cognizant of good things so that we can rediscover or re-appreciate them without labouring unnecessarily to reinvent them.
The second, less obvious way that archives are important social institutions relates to innovation or thinking differently for the future. The idea is nicely conveyed in this line from a poem called Flood by William Mathews: And isn’t the past inevitable, now that we call the little we remember of it ‘the past’?
Not being aware of the diversity of what came before us makes incremental development more likely and diminishes the chances of meaningful or radical change. For example, a recent project we undertook looked at the development of what is referred to in business schools as the Harvard Case Method of teaching.2 Most assume that the Case Method has been applied in much the same since it was developed nearly 100 years ago at Harvard. We think that the Case Method is as it was in 1920. And if we compare 1920 with 2016 this is largely true.
But these little snippets of the past (1920 and 2016) are only a little of what has happened. Our archival research at Harvard and elsewhere revealed that in the 1930s the conventional Case Method approach was challenged by the Dean of HBS and many of his supporters. They argued that instead of using cases to focus decision making according to business-like criteria, labour relations and wider social concerns should be considered and cases used to challenge conventional assumptions about business.
However, normal service was resumed in the 1940s and these alternative views soon forgotten. Forgetting this diversity enables us to believe the Case Method is immutable: a longevity that adds to its aura and status, making it seemingly inevitable and, as a consequence, less likely to be challenged in a substantial way. But by recognizing diversity in the past, we can be encouraged to promote thinking differently about how we use cases with students today. Because it has been otherwise in the past so we can more easily imagine things being different in the future.
More generally, a lot of research now shows that greater diversity leads to less efficient decision making but more creative problem solving. Homogeneity creates lesser disturbance, but the ensuing rationality is more bounded.3 For example, we’ve argued elsewhere that because conventional history of management is made up almost exclusively of elements from the pasts of Anglo-Western early industrializing nations the boundaries of what management can and should be about are narrow. The world according to management history looks like the figure below (developed in association with worldmapper.com by redrawing countries according to the number of business and management history articles in leading journals that are based on data from them) and this ‘skewing’ makes it less likely that alternative perspectives from the malnourished countries are able to inform future developments.4
Some studies now argue that the Internet age is exacerbating our forgetting of large parts of the past, making it more difficult to see back into worlds where things were done differently and which, if uncovered, could add to our repository of ideas with which to create. One study in the journal Science argued that accessing a larger range of work via Internet platforms was resulting in reducing average year ranges of citations, or a narrower slice of the past, leading to a reduction in substantive innovation. Another in the Journal of Informetrics noted similar phenomena and what the authors termed ‘attention decay’ or a faster forgetting of previously published work.5
We were able to use the Tavistock Institute archive toward both of the reasons or aims described above (using a greater understanding of the past to avoid the previous mistakes/achievements and using a greater historical understanding to stimulate thinking differently), in a very small way, for an article published in Human Relations called ‘Unfreezing Change as Three Steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s legacy for change management.’6 The article argued that the ‘foundation stone’ of many subsequent approaches to managing change was not as foundational as we tended to believe, and our belief in it was limiting current thinking.
We had consulted archives in the United States and could find no trace of Lewin promoting the Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze model of managing change attributed to him and subsequently defined as the ‘classic model’. We knew that Lewin had much to do with Tavistock and its establishment in the 1940s, and that the fragment others later vaguely alluded to as the source of the Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze model was from an article published in Human Relations which the Institute had sponsored in 1947. But searching the Tavistock archive also revealed no trace of Lewin himself promoting such a model in correspondence or otherwise.
This discovery (or non-discovery) gave us the confidence to explore and develop a counter-history that showed how the conventional history of Lewin’s place in management, as the founding father of change management due to his promotion of a 1, 2, 3 step model, was dubious. And more than this, this conventional history was obscuring the other interesting work that Lewin did do and did promote which could have been, and could still be, informing innovative developments in management thinking.
The research projects described above provide material for a new book written with John Hassard and Michael Rowlinson called A New History of Management, to be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.7 The premise of the book is that to really think differently about management we must first rethink the boundaries of management history. This notion of thinking differently by looking beyond the ‘little’ self-reinforcing elements of the past we assume to be management’s smooth homogeneous history, is only possible if we have access to a wider set of ideas about what was important to those researching and teaching management before us. This wider set is currently available in archives like those at Harvard, Tavistock and many other places; but only if we don’t let them fall into disrepair – if we invest in them and use them.
Stephen Cummings and Todd Bridgman
Stephen Cummings is professor of management at Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. He completed his PhD in management history at the University of Warwick.
Todd Bridgman is senior lecturer in organizational behaviour at Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. He completed his PhD in management education at Cambridge University