There are company histories such as Kao Shi Hyakunen [The 100-Year History of Kao Corporation], but what do you know about them? Perhaps your impression is of thick, heavy books full of photographs. Indeed, company histories used to be such commemorative publications released for publicity purposes by companies who only wrote about themselves in a good light.
Over the last 30 years or so, however, there has been a gradual change in company histories. Business historians from outside have participated in the writing of such company histories, and corporate failure and other unfavorable aspects of their subject became to appear in them, which have made them an increasingly valuable source for the study of corporations.
At the heart of this change in company histories is the Japan Business History Institute. Beginning with Wakoru Nijunen no Ayumi [Wacoal - A 20-Year History] in 1969, the Institute has been engaged in commissioning research and supervising the editing of about 130 company histories, creating a trend for researchers to participate in these books. In addition, the Institute’s Best Company History Prize, awarded biennially since 1978, has contributed greatly to raising the standard of company histories.
The screening criteria for this prize include “making sufficient efforts to unearth and collect internal and external material” and “writing fully about events that were pivotal for the company,” underlining the importance of objectivity in both the reference materials and the descriptions in these histories.
It is of course up to researchers how they utilize company histories in their corporate research. In other words, there is wide potential for the use of company histories in corporate research, and they contain some use value for various researchers engaged in corporate research.
A full company history describes the company’s supply chain process, from R&D and production to distribution and marketing, as well as changes in corporate strategy and organization, and may sometimes cover a wide range of other subjects such as labor relations, on-site quality control, and so on. This means that, for example, focusing only on strategic or organizational changes can provide historical cases for researchers of strategy theory or organization theory, and comparing multiple company histories enables researchers to find any shared or distinctive characteristics among those companies.
In my field of business history studies, history of company is not necessarily the same as business history. Business history is more than a simple list of historical facts. A significant feature of business history studies is the focus on being able to identify major changes in corporate performance, and the clarification, through the decision-making process of a businessperson, of why those changes occurred. You could say that one of the roles of the business historian is to bring the facts listed in a company history to life by analyzing the decision-making processes.
The company histories that are most valuable as a source for business history research are those containing quotes from the time that corroborate the decision-making process of businesspeople. Such quotes provide us with priceless facts that could never be revealed without a company history, including R&D secrets and production site or sales floor initiatives that did not necessarily come out in press releases. If a quote is historical and the person concerned is no longer alive to be questioned, its value as a source is even greater.
Nevertheless, there are two points that should be kept in mind about the use of company histories. The first is that although the job of a company history is to state objective facts, it may not necessarily contain all the facts. A company history may have changed, but as long as its sponsor is a company, its content could be judged to be premature, such as if the stakeholders of an event still exist.
The other point is that company histories are not a place for researchers to conduct in-depth analysis as they would in a research paper. Deeper analysis using the same sources is something required of business historians, in the same way that writers often do separate research into internal sources they have unearthed.
Companies, like human beings, are living things. While there are some companies like Yamaichi Securities that have gone bankrupt and disappeared, others like Nissan Motor Company have managed to bounce back after failure. Companies really are living entities, and their company histories are nothing less than a chronicle of their past.
Chuo University is fortunate enough to possess many company histories. Most are kept in the library of the Institute of Business Research on the fifth floor of Building No. 2, although quite a lot are held in the Central Library. Recently, more and more companies are putting their company history up on their websites too, including Toyota, Honda and Sharp. I would like to suggest that you take a look and find out what they are like.