Archives – Facilitating Enterprise Innovation and Growth

International Conference on Business Archives

Hosted by the State Archives Administration of China
Bank of China Building
Beijing, 16 to 17 May, 2018. 

Presentation by:
David Fricker
President, International Council on Archives
Director-General, National Archives of Australia

David Fricker

Thank you Mr Wang Yanbin for that kind introduction.

I would like to thank Mr Li Minghua, Director of the State Archives Administration of China for his invitation to address this conference today, the Bank of China for providing this superb venue and the State Grid Corporation of China for its support of the Conference. It is a great honour for me, and I appreciate the opportunity to be here to listen and learn from such a distinguished line up of speakers.

This is my first visit to China, and I am also extremely grateful for the opportunity to experience the rich cultural heritage of this nation, if only for a few short days.

The Universal Declaration on Archives was adopted by UNESCO in 2011. The Declaration articulates very clearly the value of Archives and calls upon all member states to engage in the development and promotion of Archives as an essential part of good administration and governance.

'Archives are managed from creation to preserve their value and meaning. They are authoritative sources of information underpinning accountable and transparent administrative actions. They play an essential role in the development of societies by safeguarding and contributing to individual and community memory. Open access to archives enriches our knowledge of human society, promotes democracy, protects citizens' rights and enhances the quality of life.'

The Declaration goes on to give special recognition to the benefits that can come from well managed archives, for example:

  • the unique quality of archives as a reflection of the evolution of societies
  • the vital necessity of archives for supporting business efficiency, and to guide future actions
  • the role of archivists as trained professionals with initial and continuing education, serving their societies by supporting the creation of records and by selecting, maintaining and making these records available for use
  • the collective responsibility of all – citizens, public administrators and decision-makers, owners or holders of public or private archives, and archivists and other information specialists – in the management of archives.

And finally the Declaration commits member states to work together in order that:

  • the management of archives is valued and carried out competently by all bodies, private or public, which create and use archives in the course of conducting their business
  • adequate resources are allocated to support the proper management of archives, including the employment of trained professionals
  • archives are managed and preserved in ways that ensure their authenticity, reliability, integrity and usability
  • archives are made accessible to everyone, while respecting the pertinent laws and the rights of individuals, creators, owners and users
  • archives are used to contribute to the promotion of responsible citizenship.

I reflect upon these statements within the Declaration because they have a special importance for Business Archives, and I think a special relevance to the theme of this conference: 'Archives Facilitate Enterprises' Innovation and Growth'.

The declaration speaks of the value of Archives – including Business Archives, as an asset. An asset that can and should be fully utilised to guide future actions, drive efficiency, and enable the evolution of enterprises.  It reminds us that to achieve these outcomes we must invest in professional training and ensure that Archives are properly managed, preserved and made accessible.

And of course, for business success we must seize upon the many opportunities of the modern business environment – in particular the possibilities of a global market, a hyper-connected society; digital technology and automation, more efficient supply chains and reduced product development timeframes. We must also consider the increased competition that we face within the new marketplace, with our customers and consumers gaining more access to a wider variety of products and services; in many cases delivered entirely on-line.

So, this conference has come at a very good time! Never before have we had a greater need to ensure our archival collections are being used in the best way possible to empower innovation and growth within the business enterprises that we serve.

As President of the ICA, I am very grateful to ICA's Section on Business Archives for the work that is done to bring this valuable part of our community together, to share as far as possible our knowledge and experience and promote the role of Archives in business innovation and growth.

And I think there are several important archival management principles that we can embrace to achieve our goals in this regard:

Manage Archives as a Business Asset

I encourage all of us to promote our archival collections as a 'Business Asset'. Just like land, labour, and infrastructure, the information resources of an enterprise are a rich source of ideas and opportunities to find innovation and drive growth.

Too often, archives are viewed as a souvenir of the past, or a museum of documents that take the visitor down memory lane to revisit the past. To be sure, archives can serve that purpose and in the process provide an enriching experience, strengthening our understanding of the history of the organisation and building loyalty to the brand and its traditions.

However if we also think of the archives as an information asset, we appreciate that it can be mined over and over again to make new discoveries that help us develop new ideas that meet the challenges of today. In today's business environment, data is everything. The more accessible, discoverable and reusable the data is, the more powerful will be the insights that can be attained, providing the basis for true innovation.

Business Archives should not be seen as a means to take us back into the past; Business Archives carry the past into the future.

The archivist should therefore apply all of the disciplines of asset management to the Business Archives, to ensure that they are recognised by the enterprise, properly described, accessible by everyone within the enterprise and valued alongside the other significant assets of the organisation.   

Carrying knowledge across Technological Generations

We are all very aware that in all our organisations, one of the most significant enablers of innovation is digital technology; in particular the rapid evolution of technology that interconnects us and that provides us with unprecedented computational power.

But interconnectivity and computational power need to combine with something else to create value: they need data. They need to draw upon available information resources in ever increasing volumes.  Here again, the business archives are of significant importance. In order for a business to be competitive, it must have the full benefit of its own corporate memory, comprising its intellectual property and the accumulated memory that gives it its unique advantage – its market differentiation.

For our business archives to fully service this need we must embrace digitisation. Ideally digitising the content of the archives in a fully searchable form, or otherwise digitising the item level description of archival material, to ensure its existence is brought to the attention of the knowledge workers within the organisation at the moment and in the place that it is needed to play a part in the innovative process.

However as archivists we should remember that technology comes and goes. Over time, technology is overtaken by new developments and becomes obsolete. However the opposite is true of the archives; over time the archives accumulate more highly valued records and information; and rather than becoming obsolete they appreciate in value.

Therefore we must develop our digitisation programmes less like computer technicians and more like traditional archivists. Digitisation must be an act of preservation, applying techniques and standards that ensure the archival material survives the current generation of technology and is ready to be carried into the future. Digital preservation is never finished, it is a constant activity that maintains the records of today in a state that is accessible by the future.

My observation is that this is not well understood outside of the Archives community, and it is our duty as Archives and archivists to promote the necessity of long term digital preservation of archives within our respective organisations.

Supporting a Culture of Innovation

I also believe that for archives to support innovation, we must ourselves adopt and practice a culture of innovation. We should use our imagination and creativity to promote the archives that we administer, for use in new and exciting ways.

As archivists, we understand very well that the value of the archive is not in any one single record, but rather that aggregation of the collection, and the relationships that exist between the records. The integrity of the archive is maintained by due regard to the preservation of provenance and original order.

We should however also open our collections up to new technologies that make the items within our collections discoverable in new and engaging ways; for example through data visualisation technology, data analytics, and other non-traditional access methods. Allowing people to search the archives with these tools may offend our traditional concepts of records in context, but on the other hand a discovery of a single document in the archive may open the door to further research by someone who otherwise would not have been aware of the vast opportunities waiting in the collection. 

It is also important to see ourselves as a part of the enterprise's innovation culture. Business Archivists should keep themselves informed and up to date with the current strategic directions and operational challenges of their organisation and be proactive in highlighting those parts of the collection that might offer new insights into problems we are facing today.

Beyond the Enterprise – Business Archives as Documentary Heritage

I would also like to reflect upon the longer term value of business archives, not only in respect of innovation and growth of the business that created them, but also to promote innovation, growth and development of our broader society.

Like Director Mr Li Minghua, I am a proud supporter of the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. My experience with the Memory of the World has shown me that a great proportion of the most valuable documentary heritage of the world has come from business archives.

For example, in 2017 UNESCO inscribed onto the International Register 'The Archives of Suzhou Silk'.

These are business archives – covering technical research, production management, trading and marketing, and the foreign exchange of many Suzhou silk enterprises and organizations from the 19th century to the end of the 20th century. The significance of the archives were recognised for their extensive coverage of designs, product samples and trade information, teaching us so much about the East-West trade exchanges and culture changes of more than a century. Importantly, they foster an innovative culture for the future, as they resonate with commercial developments along the route of the 'Belt and Road' initiative.

I encourage all of us in the Business Archives community therefore to value our collections as a foundation for innovation and growth, in the short term to build the vitality and success of the businesses and enterprises that create and own them; and in the long term to nurture and develop the collections for the growth and development of all society – by allowing the most significant parts of our business archives to become the documentary heritage of humanity; enriching all people in our global society, building mutual understanding across nations and bringing cultural prosperity for all.

Thank you.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019