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Business News/ Companies / News/  Geoffrey G. Jones | History has its place in business

Over the last two years, Harvard Business School faculty members have been travelling around the world, including India, interviewing business leaders with 30 or 40 years of experience. The recollections of figures such as Keshub Mahindra, Adi Godrej, Ritu Kumar and Prathap C. Reddy, as well as BRAC’s Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, are being made available online at the school’s Creating Emerging Markets Project, which I launched in 2013. Some might ask, What’s the point? Do the accomplishments and mistakes of such business leaders of the past have any relevance to the challenges faced by young business leaders in today’s fast-growing emerging markets? Hasn’t everything changed?

These questions are nothing new. The value of history is a long-running topic of conversation in many cultures. “Study the past," Chinese philosopher Confucius observed thousands of years ago, “if you would define the future." This has certainly been the long-term view of Harvard Business School, which started teaching the history of business in 1928. The Creating Emerging Markets Project is the latest manifestation of a long-term commitment to understanding and teaching about the past.

The fact of the matter is, there is no consensus on the value of history for today’s top managers. One idea, however, is that there are certain patterns that seem to reoccur in successive generations that offer real learning opportunities. “History never repeats itself exactly," 19th century American novelist Mark Twain observed, “but sometimes it does rhyme."

One of my own favourite reflections on the role of history comes from late American journalist Norman Cousins. History, he wrote, “is a vast early warnings system". I use this quote in a course I teach on the history of global capitalism, which covers many different situations, from the spread of the Singer sewing machine around the world in the 19th century to the global popularity of Bollywood far more recently.

We look at the first wave of globalization before 1914 and see a world where much wealth was created by successful businesses. At the same time, such wealth creation was accompanied by growing global inequality between rich and poor, the imperial nations and the colonized ones, among other examples. Globalization then fell apart in the first decade of the 20th century, as trade barriers and capital controls spread worldwide, as the disadvantaged rural poor, angry intellectuals and anti-colonial movements rose up against the established order in country after country, often seeking solutions in socialism and state planning.

The current generation of MBA students at Harvard Business School, who matured in a world of bubbles, booms and busts as well as global terrorism, have been receptive to, and alarmed by, the implications that this history lesson provides as they start their careers as global business leaders. They understand how fragile many financial systems now are, and how wide the gap is between the affluent and the rest, everywhere from Boston to Bengaluru.

Does history tell us the next Great Recession is just around the corner? Absolutely not. Does it tell us that when political and economic systems are seriously stressed, one unexpected shock or misjudgement can bring down the whole house of cards. For sure. After all, the assassination of an obscure archduke in Bosnia in June 1914 led to the deaths of millions in World War I, the Communist Revolution in Russia, the redrawing of the political map of the entire Middle East, the end of the first global economy, and much more. The lessons for MBAs manifest themselves not so much in handy tips on how to succeed, but in changed mindsets: Do not assume that the world as we know it is forever, and be mindful of opportunities to make today’s world a better place.

But there is another question I ask in my class that has yielded the most compelling discussions in recent years. No matter what the company, the level of its financial success, or the intentions of its leaders, I ask my students if the executives’ impact on society was productive or not. The subsequent debates are animated and frequently sobering, as students take advantage of the hindsight of history to see the long-term and often unintended consequences of decisions taken by past business leaders.

Take the case of Sam Zemurray, who grew rich by introducing the Western world to a then little-known fruit —the banana. He used his wealth to virtually create Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and founded the first professorship for women at Harvard. But to protect his banana supplies, he also orchestrated the overthrow of the first democratically elected government in Guatemala in 1954. Fifty years of dictatorships, civil war and impoverishment followed as a whole society disintegrated. Meanwhile, Chiquita has remained the world’s most eaten banana brand.

With this perspective, history clearly shows how decisions taken by business leaders can and do influence real lives and real people, how they can and do have implications far beyond the walls of the firm. And this is where the Creating Emerging Markets Project’s video interviews provide further food for thought. It is striking to hear the conclusions that the founders and builders of some of the biggest business groups in their regions have drawn from their careers.

Among the collection of Indian executives, Suresh Krishna of Sundram Fasteners talks of his “business dharma" that commercial success should be seen as a “tool to enable Indian citizenry to achieve a much higher level of self-respect, self-growth and economic comfort". Yusuf Hamied of Cipla noted, “I am a firm believer that if you are in the healthcare business, it’s not a business per se. It is a business, plus you are saving lives." Perhaps the overall point is most explicitly made by Manu Chandaria, the Jainist head of Kenya-based multinational Comcraft. “Profit is a means, not the end," he observed. “End is the difference you make in a society that you live in."

Thus, there are plenty of rhymes to be found in business history, and no shortage of early warnings. As a result, learning from the past about the consequences of decisions should surely be part of every manager’s toolkit, regardless how new their world seems. That’s a lesson worth remembering throughout the 21st century.


Geoffrey G. Jones is the Isidor Straus Professor of Business History at Harvard Business School and faculty chair of its Business History Initiative. A Fellow of the Academy of International Business, he is the author of many books, including Entrepreneurship and Multinationals: Global Business and the Making of the Modern World (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013).

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Updated: 22 Apr 2015, 01:39 AM IST
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