Somewhere in the reams of emails, spreadsheets and ledgers might be the ingredients of India’s economic growth. But in these fast and electronic times, who decides what to keep and what to throw away?
Enter the business archivist.
Companies, suddenly aware of their role in making history, are hiring such people to sort through both old files and photographs, conduct interviews with employees past and present, and maintain archives of the companies’ file. Some make their way into company museums and exhibits, as at Wipro Ltd and Infosys Technologies Ltd, while others are kept in storage, waiting to resurface if needed again.
A Godrej Industries employee goes through some old files. The archives team records interviews with employees who have been there for decades, preserving their impressions of the company that was
Still, archiving experts fear that as India’s growth rate approaches 10% a year, companies are not hanging on to the past enough. They warn this will also become an issue as Indian companies are bought by multinationals, or even when Indians are the ones doing the buying.
“In a few years, people are going to want to read the story of the Indian economic miracle. At least I know I will,” says T.R. Gourvish, chairman of the London-based Business Archives Council and a professor at the London School of Economics. “The question is, are companies saving enough things, and saving the right things, to allow people to write that story?”
At Godrej Industries Ltd, Vrunda Pathare is one of the people in charge of making the diverse conglomerate’s history live on. She maintains the Godrej archives, which just keep growing as emails, proposals, business plans and other documents from the not-so-distant past eventually find their way to her office.
“It’s not just a matter of history. Records can be important from a business point of view right now. If they are well-kept, it’s easy for manager to know what their predecessors did and why they did it,” says Pathare, assistant manager of the archives and a business historian by training.
In Bangalore, some of the companies at the centre of India’s technology boom are also starting to look at preserving their past.
At its Electronic City campus, Wipro intends to put up a walk-through exhibition spanning its life. “I don’t know if museum is the right word to call it,” says a company spokeswoman. “Museum denotes past whereas, this walk- through intends to depict past and present.”
Infosys archives the speeches of all senior executives and saves important documents with historical value such as the prospectus from its initial public offering. It also has what it calls “experience theatre,” which showcases memorabilia from clients such as the actual box from its first Microsoft MS DOS software package, according to a company spokeswoman.
India does not have a history of preservation for preservation’s sake, although that is changing. Companies in the US and Europe began maintaining corporate archives only about 60 years ago, just as India achieved independence. Even in the West, archive experts say, many companies often don’t save sufficiently enough to write their own stories, let alone defend themselves against expensive litigation or false claims that trace back decades, even generations.
Recently, a fairly large corporation that had been in business for decades called the Business Archives Council’s Gourvish to consult on a historical memoir it wanted to write. “Somebody brought in one box with a couple of photos and some files rattling around. I turned up expecting at least a basement with a couple of musty file cabinets,” he said.
No book could be written.
Often, archivists serve as a historical fire brigade, coming to the rescue when a painstakingly assembled collection is under threat of being dismantled as companies buy new businesses, sell units, wind up long-forgotten projects—and everything in between.
“Mergers and acquisitions happen all the time,” says Helen Swinnerton, who manages the archives for HSBC’s Asia-Pacific region. “The history of a company that might not exist any more is often the last thing people are thinking about when that happens.”
But, it isn’t just about having the right collection of photos, speeches and biographical tidbits when it comes time to writing the story of a corporate success—or a fall from grace, say business historians.
On an international scale, excellent records kept by some banks going back to the World War II era helped speed along the compensation process for Holocaust survivors and their descendants, sometimes for jewellery left in safe deposit boxes or for money left in bank accounts that they never had access to again. In other cases, companies that made asbestos in the US may have spent decades longer in court battling class-action suits, eventually losing huge sums of money because they didn’t keep proper records. Archivists had to be given large blocks of time to try and reconstruct the truth after asbestos was linked to lung cancer and many exposed to the material filed suit.
HSBC’s historical records from India are expansive—including the account ledgers and old photos and other pieces from the Bombay-based Charter Mercantile Bank of India, which HSBC acquired in 1959—among its collection. Swinnerton, who oversees the expansion of the bank’s archival programme into India from her Hong Kong base, says HSBC is currently putting processes into place to make sure today’s records are safe and available for the decision makers of tomorrow. And, that has to go beyond what is necessary for compliance purposes, she said.
“As far as historical records go, we are in good shape,” she says. “Going forward, we need to bring India into line with the rest of the region as far as what is kept and what isn’t.”
Looking to the past doesn’t seem to be a problem for some older companies in both the public and private sector. The Tata group keeps more than a million documents, files, photos and works of art at the Tata Central Archives in Pune, while Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd has opened a museum detailing its history in Dehradun.
For Tata, the archives have had tangible benefits. A few years ago, Nagpur University wanted to change the designation of a hall that carried the Tata name. The courts were asked for a stay order, but said they couldn’t stop the change because there was no evidence the Tata family or companies donated anything. The archivists searched the collection and found the answer in a 1943 annual report, which detailed how three Tata-owned textile mills donated Rs1,00,000 each for the building’s reconstruction, according to a Tata archives spokesman.
The problem, according to international and domestic industry observers, is that even as India’s economy continues to take off, there are only a handful of trained professionals dedicated to preserving its rich corporate history at a time when it is moving from chapters to volumes.
At Godrej, the team in the archives continues to go a step beyond, recording interviews with employees who have been there for decades or retired long ago, preserving their impressions of the company that was. That is an invaluable supplement to curiosity pieces such as old-fashioned advertisements and curiosity pieces, like India’s first typewriter.
“In some cases, they have a unique knowledge that no one else has,” says Pathare, “and we should take the chance to preserve that while we have it.”