Significance and Function of Oral History in Documenting Organizational Knowledge and History – 1

Sepideh Kholoosian
Translated by M. B. Khoshnevisan


Note: Dr. Abolfazl Hasanabadi, Dr. Habibollah Esmaeeli and Dr. Mehdi Abolhasani participated in the fifth meeting out of the series of meetings on oral history in Iran hosted by Mrs. Mosafa. In the meeting set up in the History Hallway of the Clubhouse, they talked about “the significance and function of oral history in documenting organizational knowledge and history”.

The host started the show with a short introduction and said, “During the series of oral history meetings in previous sessions, we hosted Mr. Hasanabadi, who explained the background of oral history activities, as well as the principles of oral history and sacred defense and its necessities. We are now at the service of him and others in another category on "The Significance and Function of Oral History in Documenting Organizational Knowledge and History."

Abolfazl Hasanabadi: The discussion, with which we deal tonight, is about oral history and organizational knowledge and memory. The scope of using oral history in Iran has greatly expanded at least in the last seven or eight years; it has been widely used, especially in the last four or five years, and in practice, the bipolar or tripolar debate has diminished to a large extent. The argument I have made earlier about the diminishing role of the centers may have been related to the fact that the role of the centers has diminished to some extent, with oral history entering into the general debate of society and, in addition, in the last three or four years, the organizations and institutions have turned to documenting their own history. Perhaps, the peak of this was the discussion of administrations and the war, when a series of projects was carried out in the cabinet, and in the National Library of Iran the department of oral history, they began to teach different fields, and a codified plan was made for this purpose too.

Also, alongside the movement launched about the discussion of oral history, we had the areas which started work individually. Some areas like the banks, Social Security, Oil Ministry, and other administrations started their work separately and in the last two or three years, these areas have become active ones in using oral history in Iran, which of course many things can be done. Alongside the discussion of oral history, which is one end of the story and the other end is organizational history, we have another discussion that is organizational memory and organizational experience, and along with that, there is also the issue of organizational knowledge. It means that oral history as a tool or method is one side of the work and on the other side, there are some main issues that we raise in the world under organizational knowledge, organizational memory, organizational empiricism and even organizational culture.

Organizational memory and organizational history were first discussed in the world in the 1990s, and it was noticed under the discussion of organizational values or organizational culture as a field of work. This discussion was more under the topics of project management, and in view of the fact that foreigners have more expertise in the field of resource specialization, it has opened its place as a structure and became a field of history in the 1390s (2010s). Organizational memory and organizational history were first discussed in the world in the 1990s, and were discussed below as a discussion of organizational values or organizational culture as a field of work. In particular, many issues have been raised under the field of organizational knowledge. The historical memory of organizations in the world has been considered not because of oral history but because of the importance of the history of organizations, the necessity of organizational memory, the experience of organizations, its role in the development of organizations, its position, and so on.

Moreover, we have another discussion called organizational history and organizational historian, which has been considered more specifically in the world for at least the last ten years. We have organizational historians in today's world, and those who are involved in this field are historians who should also study interdisciplinary topics in history like urban historians, historians of oral history, military historians who should have their own characteristics and ... who should be familiar with managerial and organizational issues. Basically, doing the work of the history of organizations with the method of historiography are separate methods in which historians must be fully acquainted with statistical topics and sometimes even local issues in order to be able to do their job as organizational historians.

Regarding the issue of using oral history in carrying out the projects of organizational history in the world, if I want to talk about the result of the studies, the reality is that it is not a very well-matured discussion which was also interesting for me. Recently, I wrote an article in the field of methodology of using oral history in documenting organizational history and issues, and there I examined to what extent the people have been involved in this discussion in the world and the use of oral history is common. Of course, it was interesting that this issue was not very prominent, and despite the significance of organizational knowledge and organizational empiricism, the place of oral history is not very open. I did not find more than three or four topics in the articles I searched for, one of which was translated in the Oral History Weekly very well.

Of course, there is a border between organizational memory and organizational history as well as between organizational history and organizational knowledge. These are well-defined and structured topics, and the goal for collecting each of them is quite different. If we want to be involved in the field of oral history in Iran with this structure, we have done several project models in Iran in this field in at least the last few years, some of which we can divide into several general categories.

The first issue is the discussion of organizational archives. Oral history archives that have documented their own history, and usually, the same structured archives, have followed to do so. Archives like Astan-e Quds where we carried out a project called "Oral History of Astan-e Quds Central Library". Or we carried out a project called "Oral Administrative History of Astan-e Quds in Contemporary History" for which we interviewed for about 400 or 500 hours in the last ten years. A lot of information was gathered that either the National Library itself, which has largely documented its history, interviewed the heads and staff, or alongside it, the archive of the Document Center of the Oil Ministry, which carried out an organizational project in the field of documenting the history of the Oil Ministry which, of course, has been carried out with the priority of managers. In this part, if I want to categorize in terms of form and method of work, the most general work has been done by Astan-e Quds, which has interviewed employees in various categories - from managers to lower levels.

The second type of doing oral history projects in the area of organizations was the discussion of outsourcing the projects. That is, organizations outsourced their projects to document their history. A series of things were carried out in this way; including the discussion of the oral history project of a city train in Mashhad, which was done in Mashhad and was a good work in its kind. Or the discussion of the oral history of the Central Bank, in which a number were ordered out and a number of interviews were conducted with the managers of the organizations. It had been paid to document the history of the organization. A number of projects were also individual interviews and were not targeted such as the oral history project of the Ministry of Health with Dr. Malek Afzali, or the oral history project of the Ministry of Science. In general, we had one discussion with three or four models of work in oral history.

If I want to summarize the issue, first it should be asked what the difference between organizational memory and organizational history is? Memory is what everything in that organization has with it. Organizational history has a more specific and purposeful structure than these. It remains to be seen in which areas oral history can be more successful in the work done in the field of organizations. Second, what is the relationship between oral history and organizational knowledge, and what is the role of oral history in documenting organizational knowledge? Third, what is the relationship between oral history and organizational empiricism, and this in itself is a very important issue. Is any experience called knowledge? Can it be presented? Is it transferable or not?

Fourthly, what are the standards for using oral history in documenting organizational history, and what should be considered in light of that? And the last point is whether the purpose of oral history in this discussion is the publication and production of books or is it done only for the purpose of archiving. These are basic topics and it is good for friends to talk about them so that they can be followed up more seriously.

In continuation of the debate, the host invited Dr. Azizi to talk about the issue of documenting knowledge and organizational history and oral history and the record of his activities.

Azizi: Mr. Dr. Hasanabadi referred to two very important points, which are the so-called two key issues and should be paid much attention. One is to discuss the relationship between oral history and with the perspective that is supposed to be addressed namely documenting organizational oral history and organizational memory with organizational knowledge and management and knowledge. I think we should not equate these three categories. Organizational memory, organizational knowledge and knowledge management are three categories, all of which fall into other categories. Perhaps the only major similarities we can find between these are the way of thinking at first; that is, using interviews as a research method and the second one is the discussion of retrospect and looking at the organizational past. But in practice, knowledge management does not seek to dig into the history of the organization and to reach it and what is in the organization as historical events, and the reciprocal effects of the society and individuals on the organization and vice versa.

We have two main goals in the management of knowledge. One is the discussion of so-called explicit organizational knowledge management and the other is the discussion of tacit organizational knowledge. In explicit knowledge, the argument is to document everything that is produced in the organization. If it is a report or schedule, or if a meeting is held, a minutes should be written, if something is done that we have a procedure and rules for doing, we should prepare a procedure, if the organizational employees are instructed on how to do their job, processes, etc. the work procedures are recorded in the form of work instructions or forms. In fact, we document and maintain what we call organizational knowledge.

The second step is to reach out to the people of the organization and the employees of the organization at all levels and get out of their memory the knowledge that they have received during their work, the information that they have gained during the work, whether experimental or non-experimental, the information that is related to how they work, the information that goes back to the methods of doing the work, to the shortcuts that are in the work, to the corrective methods that have been considered over the years, to the mistakes that have been made and that someone else is not going to repeat them again, and so on, because as I said, we call these tacit knowledge and hidden knowledge. They have been documented nowhere. We extract this information and document it for being used in the future by managers and employees. In fact, this is how we gather the knowledge that is born in the organization.

But in oral history, it is true that we are talking about the organization's past, and we may have to come to ask all of this as a question from the participants. That is, we ask what you did about the crises. If an organization is in crisis, any crisis, we ask those involved in that crisis, how did the crisis arise? What did you do for it and how did you deal with this crisis? What were the results? And ... the opposite may also be true although it is one hundred percent and complete.

When we are examining the history of an organization and we are going to analyze and research the history of an organization, both from the documents and the works it has and from the memory of individuals, we can get information among these questions and document the information that those who work on knowledge management can use our data as processed information that they need and use like someone who reads a historical text but gets managerial insights from it. The facts that he interprets, the topics that he interprets and notes, are actually for the purpose of using knowledge management. So the ratio should be kept in mind that when you ask about a person's biological experience, when we work on a person's biological experiences, we actually go back to his or her past and explore history and ask about the past. Also, we may be extracting information that is useful to management and knowledge.

Another point to which Mr. Dr. Hasanabadi referred is the issue of the oral history of the organizations. Almost under the two former governments namely the last part of Mr. Rouhani's first term and the end of his presidency in the first term, with the efforts of the then head of the National Library of Iran, Dr. Salehi Amiri, through a circular sent to the organizations by the government secretary, the organizations were supposed to preserve their so-called organizational oral history according to the procedures and instructions of the National Library.

We are not very strong in the issue of the organizational history of organizations. It is true that we can at least mention a number of historical books that have been written about the Administrative and Recruitment Organization, about the Ministry of Finance, etc., and the finance ministers about the changes in the members of parliament and such, but when we relay look at it from the perspective of organizational history, there is no trace of even the methodology of those works.

As an example, I am now examining an organization that does not have a formal administrative-organizational structure like other organizations. It is an institution that has come from time to time to pick over its own documents, to keep what was important from the point of view of that day, and to throw away whatever was not useful. Now we have a problem to reconstruct the history of that organization based on its documents because there is nothing. It means that we are really at a stage where I think only oral history can reach us by interviewing people who have been involved in events and have been active in situations, and we can extract them. Therefore, it was decided to work extensively on the oral history of organizations to preserve the minimum information that is in the minds of individuals.

Except for the people who, of course, are not few in the country, the rest of the people who were in government at the beginning of the revolution have almost retired and left. From the first generation of the 1370s (1990s), we practically face a large number of employees who were employed until the 1360s (1980s) and are either about to retire over 30 years or retired. This organizational information is disappearing especially at a time in the first period of the revolution, and perhaps little effort was done in documenting and keeping the documents.

We know that a few organizations and some institutions at the time of the revolution, during the revolution and after its victory, which are of course very few, began to remove, as they say, the works and documents related to the former monarchy, in which the works and documents were destroyed. Most organizations were content to remove the lion and the sun arm, the logo, and so on, but unfortunately some did more. Thus, although it was a little late in terms of time, the organization decided to start and implement the organizations’ oral history projects sooner.

Most of these works were going to become a project but the organization came and took another step. It identified interested people, preferably educated ones in history, in the organizations and trained them to enter as interviewers, and in cases where they did not know the historical knowledge and the minimum interview methods, it had arranged the courses in such a way that they could lead the minimum projects and, if a project is to be carried out in their organization, act as supervising judges.

In continuation of the show, the host invited Dr. Abolhasani to talk about the documentation of knowledge and organizational history and oral history.

Abolhasani: I have a problem with the title you have determined for today's meeting, and the problem is that the challenging issue that we face today and non-oral history friends always challenge us with it, is to what extent your work method and data are scientific.

If we go beyond that, we know that from a scientific point of view, a process must be followed in order for the data of oral history to reach the stages of having a document from the stages of being a document and being a witness. While here we are talking about the significance and function of oral history in documentation; can oral history see the history of an organization that has written documents? Laws, statutes, directives, instructions, decrees, etc. are all documents of an organization. When confronted with these inviolable written documents, the title has a problem scientifically, and perhaps it would have been better to write about the place of oral history in the collection of historical data from organizations and institutions and everything else.

This is a big point and claim in oral history that has not yet reached the stage of document production, how does it want to document itself? Because we always say that we use written documents to document the oral history data we collect. Now we are raising the opposite. So this is important. I would like to conclude from this that it has now been common - sorry for this explicitness - that everyone has been involved in the field of oral history, and we are seeing every day that the oral history of this organization, ‌ this institution or anywhere else, ranging from interest-free funds to a big ministry like the Ministry of Oil and everyone have been involved mushroom-like and they are doing the work of oral history. Many people, however cannot have a definition of oral history, other than that we have to enter in their resume, they come and use that oral history data as the first and last word about the history and knowledge of an organization. While in my opinion, this is in contrast with the philosophy of the origin and function of oral history.

We do want oral history for gathering historical data where there is no document. Now, the organizations which have pile of documents and at least one of the guidelines, directives, rules, monthly or annual reports that are in all organizations. What was raised earlier in Mr. Khatami's government was the discussion of empiricism, in which we, who were teachers, and the managers and middle managers to director general, were all required to record their own experiences. Do we have the right to use oral history at all in these cases? Yes, in those parts where we want to see beyond events, developments and circulars, but the organizational documents themselves have the final say, and we must pay attention to them.

Regarding the oral history of the organizations and the discussion of the subdivisions of the government, as Mr. Azizi said, yes, it was notified. In Isfahan itself, no more than three organizations came. Education Ministry, Welfare Organization and another one came and Mrs. Dr. Sotoudeh and I taught, although it was very limited and incomplete, and later it was not clear what the outcome was. That is, the directive that was notified was not binding at all, and not all organizations complied with it. This was one point, and another point is that I saw that some organizations started doing this by themselves without sending a trained force. That is, the forces were not trained. How many graduates of history do we have in in the organizations? After all, the forces that were in different provinces and worked in the field of oral history and were familiar with this method and scientific mechanism were not used properly at all, and now the titles that come out and those who have written the oral history of the organizations, they are unknown at least to me, and I do not know if they are the force of the organization or if they have been trained somewhere outside the area in which we work in the Oral History Association.

At any rate, I think the organizational oral history has remained incomplete and incomplete so far because it is not binding and no budget has been allocated for it and they have done it by themselves. That is, they do not allow those who have studied in this field and have experience and exist in their research background to do so. They do it themselves. Yes, sometimes a researcher may have domination on the organization. But this domination has nothing to do with history. When we look, we see that people's experience has been limited to memoirs, memory-writing, recording the memories of managers and employees regardless of the historical context that has been in different decades.

We were invited to do something about the oral history of Iran's sport. There, I brought up some issues that my friends said we did not pay attention to when discussing the oral history of sports. In any period about which we want to talk, if we do not pay attention to the political, social, economic, cultural history of that period, what we collect is not worth archiving, let alone wanting to be published as a book.


To be continued ...


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