What role does history play in today’s workplace?

Re-inventing the wheel

There is an apocryphal story told of Sir Nicholas MacPherson, who worked in Her Majesty’s Treasury for 30 years up to 2016, with the latter 10 years as Permanent Secretary (the boss). During his tenure as Permanent Secretary, a policy was presented to him for approval. Staff had been working on the policy day and night for over 6 months and it had gone through several levels of approvals. It was only when the policy paper arrived on Sir Nick’s desk that its very existence was challenged. He asked whether the authors had consulted people who had worked on a similar issue or searched the records management system and archives. The reason he rejected the policy document was because the same issue had crossed his desk 5 years previously. He was able to list the reasons why the policy wouldn’t work then and why it wouldn’t work now.

Think of how many hours had been wasted because the authors had not done some basic homework. Consider how, in this instance, the individual at the top alone appeared to possess the corporate memory. Luckily for the Treasury this was the jolt the organisation needed and they put in place activities to reduce this type of risk, including annual reviews where each team was challenged and assessed on improvements of knowledge and information management. Also, strong links were established between policy makers and academics.

Why bother with history?

History is full of stories, good and bad, and even if you are not that interested in history, there is usually something that can appeal. You just have to find the hook that works for you.

Here are some examples of history going in cycles:

  • In the 1980s the UK Government was consulting on London’s third airport. Today it is consulting on the expansion of London’s airports.
  • A talk on new communications technology at the turn of the 20th century with the introduction of the telegraph and the telephone. Today’s new communications technology is the digital revolution and cyber security. The challenges remain the same; some people are reluctant to accept and embrace change.
  • The first UK Civil Service Reform was the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report. The most recent UK Civil Service Reform report was delivered in 2014.

More about history: