Irish statesman Edmund Burke is often misquoted as having said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” while British statesman Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Lessons from the past may not always ward off doom, but they can provide insights into the present and even the future.
In June of 2009, an interviewer asked the legendary economist Paul Samuelson what advice he would give to someone entering graduate study in economics. “This is probably a change from what I would have said when I was younger,” Samuelson replied, but “[I would urge them to] have a very healthy respect for the study of economic history, because that’s the raw material out of which any of your conjectures or testings’ will come.”
When you ask any faculty member if economic, financial, or business history is important, they would almost for certain say yes. Yet business schools in India rarely recruit a business historian as a member of their faculty. At most business schools, history provides marginal value at best, it makes an interesting elective, but is not at the core of what they provide to students. While historical questions rarely arise during placement interviews for jobs in investment banking or consulting, the ability to think in historical frameworks provides students of all stripes the capacity for analytical depth that outstrip their peers.
Teaching economic, financial, and business history enables students of business schools prevent the ultimate analytical error: fighting the last battle. Since humans intrinsically look to the past for guidance, they tend to find solutions in the past as well. Formal education in history prevents bad, ad-hoc uses of history in decision making.
While our businesses are unlikely to break the tyranny of the quarterly report any time soon, teaching history forces business school students to think in the long term. Analysts who think in the long term are less susceptible to mistaking volatility spikes for the greater trend, and thus better structure investments and firms that are successful over 20, 50, and even 100 or more years.
Business students are likely to carry a wrong notion that their forerunners were less sophisticated than them, because they have better data, more developed analytic theory, and better computational tools. So they believe that they would not have made the mistakes made by their predecessors. Once they study business history, they would realise that the people of the past were not ignorant bumpkins. We are subject to asymmetric information, negative externalities, and deficient regulatory apparatuses just like they were.
Not political or social trends but economic crises cause profound societal shifts. Political crisis of 1975-77 did not change India but the economic crisis of 1991 forced us to shift our priorities. Not undermining the science, humanities, technology or policy studies, it is largely business school graduates who will make the economic, financial, and business decisions that prepare the ground for massive societal change. As business schools train students to make these decisions, they have the duty to remind them of the implications of these decisions as well.
Business history, together as a body of literature and a community of academic researchers, has both a narrow and a broad definition. The narrower definition includes researchers who conduct primary archival research, although using a plurality of sources and methods, on the history of business enterprises, who belong to the professional business history societies now established in many countries. The broader definition comprises scholars from a variety of social science disciplines (including management studies) who study the historical development of business (sometimes doing original archival research of their own, and sometimes bringing new theoretical perspectives and conceptual frameworks to bear on existing research). These two circles interact and enrich the field, which remains open to multiple methodologies and new questions, without falling under the spell of crippling orthodoxies which constrain research agendas.
The “open architecture” of business history as a discipline means that it is unusually well‐placed to participate in vigorous two‐way exchanges with scholars in adjacent fields. On the one hand, careful empirical research by business historians can effectively challenge or qualify many of the “stylized facts” on which influential theoretical analyses in the social sciences sometimes rest. Corporate governance and financial systems are particularly striking examples, as few if any of the typological frameworks influential in the comparative literature (insiders vs. outsiders, stakeholders vs. stockholders, banks vs. capital markets, common vs. civil law) can account persuasively for the range of variation observed by historians over long time periods within and across countries. On the other hand, comparative social‐scientific analyses suggest new questions for business historians, concerning the morphology and explanation of cross‐national differences in the organization of business interest associations, the development of vocational education and training systems, and other similar issues which have not hitherto figured prominently in national historiography.
A sense of business history is important for business leaders to develop a contextual intelligence; that is, a strong sense of the business environment they are navigating. “11 future lessons we can learn from the history of business” by Jonathan Wichmann (10 September 2018) is a very insightful read from the World Economic Forum (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/11-things-business-history-can-teach-us-about-the-future/).
Indian Institute of Management at Ahmadabad had initial collaboration with Harvard Business School. The institute followed Harvard tradition of the case study approach that required management students to probe into past business dealings to understand the evolution of business operations and strategies. This initiated a new course called Business History. This course was introduced in the post-graduate curriculum under the able guidance of Dr. Dwijendra Tripathi, former Kasturbhai Lalbhai Professor of Business History at IIMA. Nearly all management schools in the country boast of using cases as the pedagogical tool in imparting business education without actively acknowledging that cases are historical events and case-method of teaching involves simulating and emulating history for acquisition of wisdom.
India does not have any “core” business history journal, like the international journals like ‘Business History’, ‘Business History Review’, ‘Enterprises et Histoire’, ‘Enterprise & Society’, ‘Japan Business History Review’ and ‘Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte’. With apologies to other authors for my ignorance, I am aware of two popular books contributed by Tripathi – ‘The Oxford History of Contemporary Indian Business’ and ‘The Concise Oxford History of Indian Business.’ three popular books contributed by Tirthankar Roy are – ‘A Business History of India’, ‘The Economic History of India, 1857-2010’ and ‘The East India Company: The World’s Most Powerful Corporation.’
Paul Samuelson came to realize only in 2009 that history, economics, business, and finance are interconnected and inseparable, and need to be treated as such. By relegating history to the far-flung corners of a few elite business schools, we deny the intrinsic character of the subjects we study and teach, and risk condemning our students to a cycle of mistakes that can, in fact, be avoided.
Articulated by borrowing liberally from https://som.yale.edu/blog/the-importance-of-teaching-history-in-business-schools and https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199263684.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199263684-e-001
First published 26 July 2021
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