Research Case Study

Impact: How John Lewis helped us prove the business value of archives

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    Digital, creative and cultural

Montage of John Lewis archive pictures

Business archives offer a wealth of information about company history. But how can they inform business practice today? Working with archivists from the John Lewis Partnership and other organisations, Dr Alix Green is helping business leaders understand how looking to their past can help them in the future.

What was the challenge?

“Each business archive holds material unique to the company, such as product designs, advertising material, company newsletters, photographs, staff records and correspondence. But unless you have a major licensing operation, like Coca-Cola, archive services tend to be seen as a net cost to businesses,” said Dr Alix Green, from our Department of History.

“The Partnership’s investment in an award-winning new heritage centre shows the company values its past but the archivist, Judy Faraday, and I realised there was a need to put the historical records to pro-active use.

“Our challenge was to demonstrate historical archives are business resources that can help influence decisions today.”

Dr Alix Green, from the Department of History
"Our challenge was to demonstrate historical archives are business resources that can help influence decisions today."
Dr Alix Green department of history

What did we do?

Alix took a new approach to research. Rather than using the archive to pursue her own personal research interests, she and Judy co-designed a study that used the rich holdings in the Partnership’s archive to address a current business need.

Inspiration came from satirical cartoons from the 1970s when the Partnership was blacklisted by the Government for breaching national pay controls.

“How to reward Partners is key for John Lewis,” explained Alix. “The ultimate purpose of the Partnership is ‘the happiness of all its members’, as first laid down in the company’s 1928 Constitution.

“But it operates in a highly competitive and relatively low-wage sector, facing the same external pressures as other large retailers.

“How the Partnership reconciled and managed the potential conflicts in its pay policy was a challenge in the 1970s and remains so today. Our research gives present-day managers an additional source of intelligence to help them respond to that challenge.”

Working with Judy, Alix used the archive to explore how the company navigated and communicated its pay policy decisions during the blacklisting.

One of the satirical cartoons that inspired Dr Green's research
One of the satirical cartoons that inspired Dr Green's research
Documents relating to the 1970s blacklisting of John Lewis Partnership
Documents relating to the 1970s blacklisting of John Lewis Partnership

What did we learn?

The findings, published in 20th Century British History,  revealed the Partnership as an unlikely villain, offering ideal satirical material for political cartoonists to criticise Government efforts to beat high inflation by controlling private sector wages.

Alix showed that the business weathered an extended post-war period of economic difficulty well. Partners and customers were generally supportive of the company when its blacklisting made headline news.

She is discussing her findings with senior managers at the company, showing how the Partnership could learn from its history and demonstrating the business value of the archive.

“The research has opened up parts of the collections which had been neglected, making the work of the archive, through the creation of usable knowledge, more accessible and useful to our senior managers,” said Judy Faraday.

Erin Lee, Head of Archive at the National Theatre
"This research has really got business archivists talking. It shows us that our archives are relevant to current decision-making."
Erin Lee Head of Archive at the National Theatre

What have we changed?

Alix influenced how the Partnership understands and communicates its pay policy but the scope of projects co-designed with archivists is “as wide as the archival collections themselves and as ambitious as your business needs it to be” according to Alix. 

By adopting this approach, she has shown how researchers, not just historians, can  influence anything from railway station design to helping theatres reach new audiences.

Working with archivists from organisations including Transport for London, the National Theatre, and Boots, she is writing new guidelines for business archivists to help them co-design projects with academics based on the innovative John Lewis model.

“This research has really got business archivists talking. It shows us that our archives are relevant to current decision-making, and that if we think more strategically about their research value and build lasting relationships with the academic community we can turn them into valuable business resources,” said Erin Lee, Head of Archive at the National Theatre.

“The collaborative nature of Dr Green’s work is highly innovative. Helping organisations ‘think historically’ and to use their archives to understand how policy can be shaped and developed, provides an interesting role for historians in shaping public policy now,” added Rebecca Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer, Historical Association.

Archive images courtesy of Judy Faraday, John Lewis Partnership Archives

Research team

Dr Alix Green, Department of History