Use the past to shape the future

According to CBS Professor Tor Hernes’ new book, the past is not just the past. The past is mouldable and something that a business owner must face, because a company’s future is influenced by the parts of the past we choose to focus on.


When Jørgen Vig Knudstorp became CEO of LEGO in 2004, one of the first things he did was to hang an engraved tree plaque in his new office. Only the plaque was not new and it was not his own. It was a plaque that Ole Kirk Kristiansen, the founder of LEGO, had hung on his wall 70 years earlier.

The plaque read that ‘not even the best is too good’. By choosing to dust off the old plaque, the new CEO sent a clear message to his new employees: LEGO should not compromise on quality. In this way, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp showed that he knew the past of the company but also chose to focus on a specific part of the past because it matched the strategic changes he wanted to make.

As they say, the rest is history and LEGO has performed well since 2004. This example is used in the new book A Process Theory of Organization by Tor Hernes, Professor and PhD at the Department of Organization at CBS.

Time and how to use it
One of the key themes of the book is time and how business leaders can use it. Tor Hernes’ point is that the past is mouldable, and that the business leader can take a selective look at the past of a company and choose elements that are suitable.

- By focusing on elements of the past the business leader can influence the way the organization sees the future. The past should not be seen as unambiguous and unchangeable – but as flexible. In fact, a company can stretch back and focus on a different past and thereby see the future differently, says Tor Hernes.

But a business leader cannot pick and choose freely from the past. It has to fit in with the context that the company is a part of. In Tor Hernes’ opinion, the reason that the past can be such a useful tool to shape the future is that the past, present, and future are interconnected.

- We are constantly in the process of becoming something different. We are always on our way into a future from a past. So past, present, and future are all part of the same temporal stream.  The ontological and philosophical basis for my research is that everything is in motion, says Tor Hernes.

To Tor Hernes this also applies to businesses, meaning that business structures constantly change instead of being static.

A Process Theory of Organization has been published by Oxford University Press.

The page was last edited by: Communications // 12/17/2017