I got a question today about how to write an organizational history.
The organization will celebrate its centennial in 2008 and my correspondent had been asked to compile a history of the institution to commemorate the event. He wanted to to find an attractive and palatable literary vehicle/style/genre to
communicate what is of itself an interesting history. He was toying with the possibility of organizing the history of the university as a story or as many stories. He asked whether I saw possibilities in using this approach?
Organizational histories can be a tricky challenge. Often there are so many interests bearing down on the writing that it's tough to produce something that's both true and interesting. There's a passage in my co-authored book, Storytelling in Organizations (Butterworth Heinemann), where Larry Prusak had a few blunt words to say about the subject:
- "People sometimes ask me how to approach writing an oral history of an organization. What should they do and what shouldn?t they do? Sometimes I tell them what Voltaire said about history. ?It?s a pack of tricks played on the dead.? If you can find people still alive who were around when the organization was created and who can really talk about it, my advice is to interview these people and tape the conversations on video. Talk to people who have stories to tell, and let the viewers make their own decision as to what this means. I usually advise them not to write it. There are firms that write histories for other firms. But almost no-one reads them, because we know they are not true. It doesn?t accord with our own sense of how an organization would work. Country histories are different. Professional historians often write really well and honestly, and readers agree that, yes, that must have been the way it was. But corporate histories are different. I?ve read a number of them. They?re mostly public relations, that is to say, bunk, and people know it. So I?d recommend interviewing people and letting them talk. Then others can watch the tapes and make up their own minds as to what they mean."
That's one approach, which may or may not suit the need. If there is a requirement to actually write a volume, then telling it as a story is certainly the way to go. If one can find a coherent point of view for the story, something that reveals the true spirit and soul of the university, this would help to give it focus.
It may also be useful to have a frank discussion up front with the authorities about the issue of truth. If the book is to be simply a PR job, then it may leave your sponsors very happy but will likely result in a book that is never read. If on the other hand the book is to be frank account of both the joys and woes of the story of the organization, with some lively writing about the impact of the lives on specific individuals, including the setbacks, then it may offend some people but it just might end up being worthwhile.
And of course, there?s more on telling your organization?s story in The Leader?s Guide to Storytelling.