Why business history matters

The dependence on chance discoveries as opposed to systematic documentation has been a major obstacle for constructing historical narratives in India


The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, a historic symbol of the Tata Group which has, over the years, become a landmark of the city. Photo:  Abhijit Bhatlekar/ Mint
The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, a historic symbol of the Tata Group which has, over the years, become a landmark of the city. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/ Mint

Kautilya’s Arthashastra, compiled over 1,800 years ago, is considered a classic treatise on statecraft and economy. Oddly, the document itself was not available in the modern era until Dr. R. Shamasastry of Mysore stumbled upon a manuscript in 1904. This chance discovery led to further research and the rest, as they say, is history.

The dependence on chance discoveries as opposed to systematic documentation has been a major obstacle for constructing historical narratives in India, especially in the world of business. Firms do not document their histories, losing memories of generations of workers, managers and owners. There are thousands of firms in India that have a history of over 50 years and yet, the number of professional corporate archives is in single-digits: Godrej Archives (Mumbai), TATA (Pune and Jamshedpur), State Bank of India, Dr. Reddy’s, and Cipla, to name some. History is virtually absent in teaching and research programs in Indian business schools, and students are unaware about the origins of firms, industries and economies before 1991, let alone 1947.

Instead, what passes as business history today is an endless series of biographies or autobiographies that uncritically celebrate the achievements of a few individuals. While undoubtedly useful, these books do not engage with the wider political and societal context in which changes take place. Does business history matter? For whom does it matter? And if it does, how should it be promoted?

Relevance

Business history matters for the same reasons that history matters. What appears to be common knowledge about the past (such as the Harappan civilization) is based on the untiring efforts of historians and scholars in piecing together information from the years gone by. Many aspects of Indian business history remain unknown due to lack of research. For instance, in India, histories of women in business before 1950 are unavailable. This has less to do with the non-existence of the phenomenon than the oversight of the historian. Fresh research in other countries on this subject is resurrecting businesswomen such as Mary Reibey in 19th century Australia and Margaret Hardenbroeck in 17th century America. Similar research in India could provide new information and potential role models for a new generation of female business leaders.

Business history of firms can be a source of pride and learning for employees and the public. Godrej Archives in Mumbai has a wonderful collection of documents and artefacts that go back to 1897. It showcases this collection to the Godrej workforce and the outside world through exhibits, social media and newsletters, and the collection is accessible to researchers. Oral histories of employees are captured as an ongoing project since every person’s memory holds valuable information on the organization. In addition to preserving history, such efforts can make employees feel valued and instil solidarity within the firm.

Business history should matter equally to students as it can expand their perspective on the evolution of businesses in the Indian subcontinent and outside. A historical perspective on entrepreneurship, ethics, business communities and multinationals can enhance the development of future managers and entrepreneurs. Students can challenge commonplace assumptions with perspectives that are enriched by historical evidence. For instance, the complicity of several Indian merchants with the East India Company in the 18th century or that the Bombay Plan of 1944 was a document written by leading industrialists arguing for State intervention in the economy can help build new historical narratives.

Promotion

Firms should set up publicly-accessible archives or donate collections to libraries. For large firms, the intangible benefit of goodwill and legacy management outweighs the cost of setting up corporate archives. For smaller firms, taking stock of their documents and artefacts can uncover aspects of their heritage unknown to them. A donation to a library, even if in a digitized form, would ensure the preservation of its legacy. We know more about Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and the Haribhakti family than other business persons of their eras due to their family donations available at the Mumbai and Baroda universities respectively.

Business schools should engage in research and teaching activities linked with business history. Research on business history covers decades or centuries rather than years. IIM Ahmedabad, which pioneered business history research in India through the work of Dwijendra Tripathi, now offers courses on global business and economic history to MBA and doctoral students. Although most students’ last formal exposure to the subject ended in high school, business history can be taught creatively. IIMA mixes formal teaching methods with unconventional ones that include adapted card games, hands-on exercises with world maps, social media interactions (Twitter: HITCH@BizEconHist), and Skype sessions with leading historians around the world. If more business schools were to be interested, it would be possible to form a business history association linking academics, firms and archivists.

Business history will be best served when corporates and business families set up archives accessible to the public and academics who in turn engage in research and teaching in business schools and universities. In the absence of this virtuous cycle, important aspects of India’s transformation will remain undocumented. History, in this case, should not repeat itself.

Chinmay Tumbe is with the Department of Economics at IIMA and has research and teaching interests in business and economic history and urban economics.

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