The Business of History
Gregory J. Martin
Reposted from The Federalist, Fall 2015, Issue #47
“Without this new approach to treating history programs as you might a business, history professionals and resource managers will continue to talk past each other.”
Federal history programs seem to be perpetually defending their value to the institutions they serve. In his 2012 Roger R.Trask Lecture, Raymond Smock observed that “It seems as though it takes a severe crisis before historians are recognized for what they can contribute to pressing needs of government.”1 In this year’s Trask Lecture, Victoria Harden encouraged society members to “press their relevancy and become advocates.”2 The agencies that history programs serve may at times recognize history office contributions, but more often, these programs are scrutinized as the first place to look for reductions in operating budgets and staff. Why is this? We can read extensively about the failure of policy planners and decision makers to learn from and effectively use information and knowledge from past decisions and events. Yet, there seems to be a considerable gap between the notional value of historical knowledge and the practical value perceived by agency resource managers and executives who determine the fate of history programs. Why aren’t the professional practices and analytical methods of historians and other history professionals respected as fully as other practices and methods? Perhaps how we argue for the value of our skills and the words we use to describe our contribution to the operations of our agencies need to change.
While extensive economic, technological, political, and operational analysis often goes into major government decisions, analysis informed by the right historic context is often missing, overlooked, or intentionally ignored. The business practices of government agencies primarily focus on the objective, data-driven decision processes taught in MBA programs because they seem to provide clearer, more concise choices for executives. The right historical context will often add complexity, nuance, and contingency, which often blurs the perceived precision of the business case. And therein lies their value; the right historical analysis helps challenge assumptions that fail the test of past experience. They help clarify what is known, unclear, and presumed.3 Historical analysis moves staffers, managers, and executive decision makers from a singular focus on the immediate problem, to examining a problem in a larger flow of linked events that may have escaped the first pass of business analysis.4 So then, what is the right analytical approach? Executives need both the “business” and the “historical” case.
We seem to be missing a paradigm that defines and shapes government history programs in support of their agencies. Government history offices need an operating paradigm that optimizes the strengths of business and history by integrating their professional practices and analytical methods so as to create a multiplier effect (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts). At the same time, a new paradigm could foster better communication and shared understanding between history programs and the rest of the institution they support. Without this new approach to treating history programs as you might a business, history professionals and resource managers will continue to talk past each other. Perhaps most importantly, a new paradigm could reconceive a collective role for history professionals who practice in government. In other words, it is not just about historians. Other history professionals like archivists, librarians, curators, and archaeologists need to be included in the new paradigm.
To reflect these needs, I propose a new operational paradigm that co-opts extensive business research in organizational learning and knowledge management that already demonstrates the critical value of historical knowledge to any organization. Organizational learning cannot take place without dedicated efforts to capture historical information and create new historical knowledge. Effective use of historical knowledge enables institutional adaptation to new challenges. At the same time, this new paradigm demands that history programs adopt professional business practices to instill discipline and rigor in how they function. It is time that managers and practitioners in history programs acknowledge that they are in the business of history.
The business of history paradigm operates externally and internally within a history office. Externally, four organizational management concepts inform and guide how a history office interacts with its agency. Internally, the paradigm employs a framework of eight business-practice-based building blocks that progressively help define, organize, and operate a history office. Over time and with proficiency, history programs will develop into what can be called historical knowledge enterprises, an essential node in the larger planning, decision-making, and communication network of an agency.5
The business of history paradigm shapes a history office’s interaction with its agency through the following four concepts. First, complex adaptive systems like a government agency need to retain and recycle knowledge in all forms to function and evolve. Second, embedded within a government agency is a requirement to learn, or construct knowledge, otherwise the ability to adapt is compromised, and over time the agency will fail. Third, risk management within a government agency is about having enough information to choose correctly to balance risk, and optimize gain over loss. And fourth, without the ability to store and retrieve knowledge through mechanisms that enable long-term institutional memory, an agency will incur the high cost, and added risk, of perpetual re-learning. Therefore, collecting, storing, organizing, accessing, creating, integrating, and delivering historical knowledge within a government agency are historical knowledge management (HKM) functions. When it comes to HKM, a special historical knowledge enterprise of history professionals within an agency is the most effective means to perform these inherently governmental functions.
Assuming other agency personnel can effectively absorb these functions is not based on evidence or experience. The work just doesn’t get done. Reliance on outside, contract-based professionals is an option, but runs up against limits on what is an inherently governmental function. Further, it cedes critical knowledge and expertise to a commercial interest, as well as contractual leverage over time when it comes to negotiating contracts. Government history offices and historical repositories are essential to the function of good government. As history professionals, we need to deploy an increasing body of research and analysis to bolster our arguments that a dedicated history office is actually good business practice.
Internally, history program professionals, especially those in supervisory or management positions, need to adopt the following framework of eight building-blocks that any business enterprise, from start-ups to multinationals, continually employ. This framework presents questions about your program’s purpose, operations, and organization. First, questions about customers: Who are they, what are their needs, and in what priority are they served? Next comes defining your lines of business: What are the core activities needed to serve your customers? Then, given your customers and lines of business, you need to plan your products and services: What discrete goods (e.g., books, white papers) and services (e.g., research, reference) will you deliver within the designated lines of business to serve customers? Next are requirements that are embedded in agency programs your office manages or directly supports: What are the statutory or agency-directed responsibilities of your history program that are found in explicit directives that the office is required to carry out? Only now are you ready to begin to define your program’s organization: How does the history program align people to its lines of business and programs? At the same time you consider your organization, you also need to consider the processes and systems your organization will employ: Which ones are needed to develop and deliver the program’s products and services? What back-office support processes are needed? Looking outside the history program, are there existing or potential partner relationships: Who are potential partners outside the history program office that can extend the program’s capabilities and capacity to create and deliver products and services? And finally, superimposed over the staff organization is an intellectual/tacit knowledge organization in the form of fields of study: How do you decide on what historical subject matter expertise your office needs to acquire and deploy in its daily business? How do they connect with the government agency you serve? Answering these questions will provide a level of clarity to a program’s ends, ways, and means that will greatly aid its structure and management. Resource managers will also appreciate this clarity and better understand your program: what it creates, why, and for whom.
Government history professionals have to be “a breed apart” from their academic and other public history counterparts. Many of the attributes and aspirations necessary to succeed in the university environment do not translate well in service of a government institution. Collaboration is often essential to success in government settings. We need trans-disciplinary teams that mutually reinforce team member contributions. Historical research and analysis is directly tied to issues in the present, and mitigating the risks that “presentism” can create must be understood and transcended. Government research, analysis, publication (read scholarship) comes in many forms and has many audiences. The analysis and support government history professionals provide is purpose-driven; it enables effective decision making, in some cases at the highest levels of government. When we advocate on behalf of our profession, we can simply state: We are in the serious business of history.
Gregory J. Martin is the Assistant Director for History and Archives at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC. Email: email@example.com
1 Smock, Raymond. “The Value of Federal History.” Federal History 6 (2014): 4.
2 “Victoria Harden Receives Trask Award.” The Federalist 2nd ser. 46 (2015): 4.
3 Neustadt, Richard E. and Ernest R. May. Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. New York: The Free Press, Simon & Schuster Inc., 1986: 273.
4 Ibid., 274.
5 See Ahlberg, Kristin L. “Building a Model Public History Program: The Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State.” The Public Historian 30, no. 2 (2008): 9–28, for an example of how several of the elements of this paradigm were put to use in rebuilding the State Department history office.
Bringing History to Policy Making
Historians can offer crucial skills and insights for government policy makers, yet they are often not brought into the planning process. This failure is a longstanding dilemma. Many agencies place little value on historians’ views, while others value and include historians in policy development but fail to heed their advice. A new report from the United Kingdom titled “What is the Value of History” explores the benefits of historical insights and the ways in which government offices can more systematically benefit from history. The report was co-authored by the Arts & Humanities Council (AHRC), one of several publicly chartered UK Research Councils, and the Institute for Government, an independent charity founded in 2008 to help make government more effective. Their findings emerged from their Making History Work Initiative seminars, and they bear great relevance for U.S. agencies.
The report’s findings fall into several themes:
• The historian and case studies. Policy makers can use case studies and intercultural comparisons more extensively to gain more insights into current and evolving national and international issues. By using such studies—normally not produced in haste and more sensitive to cultural differences—policy making can be more balanced, insightful, and effective. The report found that policy makers value history but that historical research is not used as systematically as that of other types of evidence, such as statistics, modeling, and economics. Historical knowledge can help not only in foreign policy and military planning, but in humanitarian efforts, “social cohesion policy,” and economic policies. Often, the authors found, policy makers favored “harder” evidence and sought “solutions rather than context.” The historian provides context and a “conceptual toolkit” that promotes new ways of thinking about issues. Academic research can also help policy makers “frame” the terms of current debates, and to help understand how others see their own history.
• Institutional memory. Despite often high staff turnover and often poorly developed internal mechanisms for capturing and using institutional memory, agencies can develop methods for capturing such expertise for use when needed. One need is “strong data repositories” and good recordkeeping. The report mentions mandatory exit interviews, but also emphasizes better access to institutional knowledge.
• Training in history and policy. More training in these areas, as practiced in the UK’s Treasury, Foreign Office, and Department of Education, helps staff build knowledge and expertise. While some government offices have in-house historical expertise, a problem is how to join that expertise with those who specialize in the difficult discipline of negotiations, summits, and unforeseen crises. Internal historians can also help recruit outside knowledge as needed. The problem eventually goes to the larger issue of civil service reform in the redefinition of the policy profession, “opening up the policy making process . . . [to reconsider] what role historical evidence and expertise should play.”
• Relationships with outside experts. Developing ongoing relationships with academic historians and experts helps build upon internal expertise and brings in the latest insights and research. Many UK offices have used more “secondments” or fellowships to benefit from outside expertise and to provide academics with high-impact experience. Some universities have established “policy institutes” that offer more permanent and rapid response to the need of policy makers. Such academic partners must be given greater career credit (rewards) for their public consultations in order to encourage more of the same.
• Promote new thinking. The UK’s open policy initiative aims to encourage policy makers to value and include historical analyses and the perspectives and insights they contribute. Much difficulty lies in changing minds about the nature of historical work. Government officials often hold that other fields offer “harder” evidence and greater objectivity than history, and that history “is a very disputatious discipline.” Also, the report notes, the difficulty of getting a minister or select committee “to go back to first principles.”
• Advisory bodies. Departments should maintain advisory bodies more systematically. These experts would not only advise but would be a link to identifying others experts—“a bridge to academia.”
• Understanding records access. More work is needed with archivists and historians on developing and understanding “future archives,” how to improve access to and understanding of rapidly changing record storage systems.
While the report is grounded in the UK’s policy making environment, it is highly relevant to U.S. needs. The report notes the great institutional desire and demand for the historian’s contributions. Many of our own federal agencies experience the same needs and practical and theoretical dilemmas. Some offices, such as the State Department history office, have developed advisory boards and connections with universities but still face the problems of how to effectively integrate and use historical expertise. We now see successful policy making as a complex process involving better integration of expertise across federal and academic lines, one wherein we are “conscious of the range of actors and directions that it might take.” This report provides an invaluable start in identifying the issues, parties, and possibilities that we must understand in trying to improve the policy making process.
— Benjamin Guterman, The Federalist