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Monday, August 8, 2011

The value of history

South Korea has been awarded their Winter Olympics—after a third try. I read about it and my memories of that country came to mind. Perseverance in achieving goals is not the only characteristic its extraordinary people have.
In addition to heading a rating agency, OmniGrade, I also work as a board member of an international factoring association, IFG, and am responsible for Asian factoring operations. I have been to many Asian countries as an IFG representative, meeting managers of local financial institutions. It’s so easy to arrange such meetings; you simply write a letter or email with an introduction and a topic you’d like to discuss and soon receive a reply confirming an appointment or courteously denying it for a reason.
With South Koreans, however, it was different; to every letter of mine I received similar answers: “to decide whether to meet you Mr. X is kindly requesting your bio.”
My first reaction was astonishment: why on earth do they need to know my bio if they are aware of my current position? But such requests would come over and over and over again; and I then realized that asking me for this did make certain sense. It is the history of an individual with its past experience and reputation that is the best criterion for the Koreans to see if interacting with that individual is worthwhile.
The same is valid for companies. It’s by no accident that many European firms still apply considerable efforts and spend a lot of money to whitewash themselves from the ‘legacy’ of their predecessors who, for instance, collaborated with the Nazis in Germany.
Keeping corporate history open has positive effects. A company has survived several crises—that means its viability is high and it is capable of honoring its contractual obligations in tough times. A company has repeatedly introduced new products and services to the market—that means it is genetically prone to innovation.
Remembering and analyzing a firm’s past can turn problems into achievements when managers can rightly say: yes, we lost something at a certain point in history but we have gained invaluable experience that is ours for good. The reverse may also be true, though; disregard for a company’s history wipes out prior achievements, and the past stops being a helper when it sinks into oblivion.