Why do some institutions last long whereas others burn brightly (if at all) for a moment?
I was inspired to write this some time ago; after reading Patrick Collison's "fast" page, and Mark Lutter's "on social change" page. SO... I'm writing this post--a list of institutions that have lived long, died very slowly or not at all.
Many of the institutions on the list are universities, schools, breweries, distilleries, or banks. Most of the institutions that are corporations are either family owned or were family owned for much of their history. Most of the institutions have a certain "sacredness" associated to their purpose e.g. many of the oldest universities were often also seminaries; they then evolved such that the pursuit of all knowledge was a virtue in and of itself.
Secular institutions seem also to have been involved in processes or activities that formed the basis of their own type of sacredness. For example, pubs being places where friendship is/was nurtured; banks being places where people's money is/was kept--and where discretion has been long valued. Distilleries and breweries often use secret recipes, and were often family owned--establishing their own sense of sacredness. Many of these institutions were also very insular, admitting few people into their inner-spaces.
It seems to me that the secret to dying slow or not at all is to build an organisational culture that both insiders and outsiders have very high regard for; so much so that it builds its own sense of sacredness. To die slow or not at all, you must build something "holy."
I suppose the question this ought to evoke is how one goes about building something sacred? One must build a venerable culture. Tradition, ritual/process, secrecy or insularity, the practice of respect/esteem--all seem to be fundamentally critical aspects to this undertaking. Family also seems to be a critical component, either by way of physical progeny (monarchies) or by way of mentorship (priesthoods and academic study). Family is the means through which stewardship of the culture is transmitted across generations; without it the culture dies.
It's no surprise then that contemporary thinking regarding venture building places such a great emphasis on culture. Drucker's quip that "culture eats strategy for lunch" seems to ring true here. It's unlikely that any strategy can take a 50 or 100 year view. No one knows what the future in 50-100 years or more will look like. As such, no strategy can pre-empt forces which may exist in the future but not in the moment of that strategy's framing. In contrast, it seems that culture can be very resilient.
Many of the institutions listed below were either founded during the medieval period or existed prior to it. In the time since their founding the world has changed drastically--and at the fundaments. They have outlived countries and technologies. They have transcended strategical manoeuvring to a point where their external cultural relevance is such that it is now very difficult for them to die. Their continued existence is almost a law unto itself. Many of these institutions are not the largest or wealthiest institutions in the world--but that is besides the point. They continue to provide value to their stakeholders, and in some instances their founding families. It would appear that being intentionally purposeful, and imputing special meaning to what you do, and how you do it--is part of the secret to building something that lasts. The other element appears to be finding a way to have your teams and your customers join you in believing in that special purpose. That after all is the meaning of holiness--to be set-apart.
This is a "living" list. I'll be updating it over time, and adding specific information on each list member (e.g. age, descriptions, location).
Here's the list:
#Syriac Orthodox Church; 512 CE
#Catholic Church; 1st Century CE
#Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria; 1st Century CE
#Armenian Apostolic Church; 4th Century CE
#Orthodox Catholic Church; 1st Century CE
#Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church; 4th Century CE
#US Federal Government; 1789 CE
#Orthodox/Rabbinic Judaism (and in particular the Kohens); 20th-18th Century BCE
#University of Al Quaraouiyine; 859 CE
#The King's School (UK); 597 CE
#University of Bologna (Italy); 1088 CE
#University of Ez-Zitouna (Tunisia); 737 CE
#Mustansiriya Madrasah (Iraq); 1227CE
#Berenberg Bank (Germany); 1590CE
#Bank of England; 1694CE
#Barclays Bank (UK); 1690CE
#Coutts & Co. (UK); 1692CE
#Lloyds Bank (UK); 1765CE
#University of Oxford (UK); 1096CE
#Berrow's Worcester Journal (UK); 1690CE
#University of Padua (Italy); 1222CE
#University of Cambridge (UK); 1231CE
#Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden); 1668CE
#Child &Co; 1664CE
#State Street Corporation; 1792CE
#C. Hoare & Co.; 1672CE
#Pictet & Cie; 1805CE
#Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena; 1472CE
#Harvard University* (though not among the oldest universities in the world; it is older than the US government); 1636CE
#Imperial House of Japan; 660BCE
#Genda Shigyō Paper Industries; 771CE
#Tanaka Iga; 885CE
#British Royal Mint; 886CE
#Moët & Chandon; 1743CE
#Brouwerij Artois; 1366CE
#The Bingley Arms; 905CE
#Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem; 1189CE
#Hashemite family; 497CE
#Omani Sultanate; 11th Century CE
#Kingdom of Cambodia; ~802CE
#Kingdom of Norway; 872CE
#Kingdom of Denmark; 8th Century CE
#Kingdom of Sweden; before the 10th Century CE
#WhiteChapel Foundry; 1570CE
#Aga Hamami Turkish Bath; 1454CE
#Frapin Distillery; 1270CE
#Stiftskeller St. Peter; 803CE
#The Joudeh and the Nuseibeh families; 12th Century CE
#Damascus; 2nd millennium BCE, possibly as far back as 6th millennium BCE
#Jerusalem; >1800 BCE