We’ve been celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this last weekend with a river pageant, concert in the park and street parties. It’s been a glorious combination of pomp, ceremony, bunting, flags and typically British grey skies. A mixture of the formal and the informal, military and civilian, celebration and commemoration. These types of occasions bring us together, they are public statements of shared memory and value and they teach us not just about the thing we are celebrating, but also about the society that celebrates it.
We like to come together to measure the passage of time, to put milestones in the ground around important events. This is as true of our personal lives, where we celebrate birthdays and weddings, as it is of our society, where we celebrate religious festivals and famous battles. Something about our past defines our present, and we have an almost compulsive addiction to remembering this. Indeed, much of our discussion in the present is based on conversations and stories about the past. Take away our history and you take away a large part of what it means to be me.
When asked to define ourselves, to sell ourselves, we often start with facts from our past: where we come from, where we studied, what we achieved. Nations are the same: our current sense of national identity is founded on our historical achievements. On friday, as i sat on a boat going up the Thames, we passed the Cutty Sark, veteran trading ship, now a museum in dry dock, HMS Belfast, the second world war veteran, now alive with tourists, and Canary Wharf, once a bustling centre of maritime trade and now financial centre of the world, holding onto it’s historical ties with a grim determination.
Our personal historical narrative is important to us, and important for us to understand when thinking about learning. The achievements that we seek to capture and define are the turning points, getting a degree, a new job, celebrating changes. Organisational change is often different, owned by the business, focused on structure and profit, but often with little attention paid to the personal narratives that are so important to us as individuals. And organisations often seek to hide their past, their dark histories of mergers, redundancies and loss making years.
Whilst we are all, individuals and countries, guilty of selective memory when it comes to our victories and defeats, we often see that within organisations there is far less attention paid to the traditions and narrative histories that are so important to us in our personal and national lives. It’s as if business has to be in the moment, that the balance sheet is everything. But in fact, organisations are just people and buildings. Our failure to consider tradition and history when we consider what we need to learn for the future may be to our organisational detriment. After all, the road we trod to get here is the same road we will tread to the future. It’s just the scenery that changes.