By Josh Oswalt, Associate, Forward Risk and Intelligence
Picture this – after watching an episode of the NBC series Who Do You Think You Are?, you become interested in learning more about your family’s history. You start writing down what you know about your parents’ and grandparents’ lives, you do some online research on popular websites like Ancestry.com and Geni.com, and you call up an older relative to take down some notes on their life experiences and family lore.
These sorts of approaches in genealogical research – fact checking, following leads, and utilizing personal identifiers – are also essential elements of other kinds of investigative work.
In fact, as an amateur genealogist myself, I was initially drawn to working at Forward Risk in part because our investigative research for clients – whether for shareholder activism, pre-investment background checks, strategic intelligence, or a wide range of other practice areas – involves methodologies that are strikingly similar to those used in genealogical research. These methodologies, when properly applied, can streamline the research process and provide significant value for clients.
Consider the following scenario. Suppose that a client engages us to conduct research on a large family-run investment office with a highly international presence and multiple family members involved in management and financial dealings. No account of such an office would be complete without providing the client a detailed mapping-out of the financial and interpersonal relationships between these related individuals.
Even in cases that don’t involve looking at multiple individuals in a family directly, genealogical research methodologies can provide important insights.
Consider another typical request from a client – they would like an investigations firm to conduct a pre-transactional investigation into a company executive as part of their due diligence process. Suppose that this executive is named John Jones – one might wonder where to begin, given how common this name is.
When looking into this executive, comprehensive investigative research would include any middle name, nicknames, name changes, and whether a parent or child shares the same name. As genealogists know, these name details and other personal identifiers such as dates of birth and residential information can be found in court records, county clerks’ records, censuses, Department of Motor Vehicles registrations, voter registrations, yearbooks, social media profiles, and a whole host of other sources.
It is not unusual to have clients request research that spans not only multiple U.S. states but also multiple countries. Consider, for example, a client interested in gaining a comprehensive understanding of a company executive’s property holdings, financial dealings, and legal exposure across North America, Europe, and Asia.
This focus on comprehensiveness would also resonate with genealogists, many of whom are familiar with on-site records checks, inquiries into family properties passed down through the generations, and traveling to foreign countries to see the areas in which their ancestors may have once lived.
Identifying data points alone is not the goal of either genealogical research or investigative due diligence. In both cases, there is an interest in capturing a true profile of someone. A genealogist might ask: What was this person’s life like? Why did they make the choices in their life that they did? What did other people think of them, and are they noteworthy in history for some reason?
The best investigators ask questions in the same spirit: What is this executive’s professional track record, and are they likely to come under scrutiny on a new company board given their previous exposure to civil litigation or regulatory action? What do their former colleagues say about their management style, and are there any red flags? Do they have a history of making controversial statements on social media that might attract unwanted public attention?
These data points, when aggregated and analyzed, give clients unmatched visibility into not just what people and companies have done, but why they have done it. Connecting the dots creates a holistic profile of individuals and companies, leading to actionable insights for clients.
Genealogical research is fundamentally community-oriented: getting insights and information is most often successfully achieved through building and drawing on the knowledge and lived experiences of others.
For example, an interview with one’s grandparent about their life can yield personal information about their family and life growing up that simply would not be accessible, visible, or knowable to the genealogist via other means. Adding this human element to the research process is a critical source of information.
In a similar way, the best investigators draw on sophisticated, bespoke, and carefully-curated interviews with individuals who are familiar at some professional level with the executives and industries about which clients would like to gain a greater understanding.
Targeted outreach to those individuals, who are able to speak with candor and professional authority on the topics in question, provides a separate stream of information that helps create a nuanced and informed individual portrait for clients.
When all of these insights are aggregated, it’s clear that expertise in genealogical research methodologies brings a differentiating edge for investigative due diligence.
These sorts of research projects are best handled by a creative, multidisciplinary team of investigators who will try out different approaches and look in places others might neglect or overlook. This is where genealogical expertise can add value on top of the skills honed through more traditional backgrounds such as journalism and law enforcement.