Building Business histories of emerging economies

HBSWK points to this really exciting project by HBS on business history in emerging markets.

The article says:

The corporate histories of Apple, Coca-Cola, and Honda are well-documented stories that offer a window into the nuances of business in a particular place, at a particular time. As such, they’re invaluable resources for research that influences future generations of leaders.Until recently, however, that body of knowledge was derived primarily from companies in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

But as emerging markets in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America continue to grow, so does an interest in how they came to be and what can be learned from the experiences of business leaders who managed to navigate their organizations through unpredictable social, political, and regulatory environments.To help fill this gap, Harvard Business School’s Creating Emerging Markets project is building a rich library of video and text interviews with seasoned leaders who have pretty much seen it all including Banco Nacional de Mexico’s Agustín Legorreta (his bank was nationalized twice); Turkey’s Güler Sabanci, the first woman in her family to run its $14 billion conglomerate and one of the globe’s top business leaders; and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the Bangladeshi founder of the world’s largest non-governmental organization.

An extensively updated website highlighting dozens of interviews and associated research has just been made public.

It is taking an interview based approach as history info is usually not there in EMEs:

“Many of these emerging economies that were once dismissed—such as Brazil—are now serious economic competitors with the United States,” Jones says, adding that many of the economies went through transition periods that involved a high degree of state intervention and hyperinflation. Then, by one means or another, the businesses in those economies came out of that period with strengths that enabled them to take off when circumstances improved.

While Jones emphasizes the diversity of the subjects’ experiences and insights, he recognizes the common threads that tie them together. In addition to all being seasoned professionals with the perspective of three or four decades, all demonstrate large reservoirs of resilience.

“Every capitalist economy has its ups, downs, and shocks,” says Jones. “But there’s a due process and greater predictability to business in the United States and Europe, which these people haven’t experienced in the 30 or 40 years of history that we’re capturing. For many, their businesses were launched during a period of heavy state intervention and protection; then the barriers came down. What do you do then?”

The second thread, according to Jones: a number of those interviewed have a broad view of their societal and ethical responsibilities. “It’s not something that we went fishing for, but it came through very clearly that many of these people, some of whom came from great poverty, are aware of the economic disparity in their countries and have a conviction that business has a role to play in addressing it.”

As India’s Business schools struggle to teach (perhaps in other EMEs too) and encourage India’s business history, the west is lapping it up. They are anyways teaching us most about our own history thanks to neglect of history across disciplines.

Business history is such a fascinating area as it links politics, economics, institutions, organisations etc together and gives a more “see and touch” (not sure how to say it) feel to it. Unlike other kinds of history which one can only read and visualise, in business history we have cases of groups/companies which have managed to create some product/service which has been of use to people.

It is high time we encourage students to study business history in India’s B-schools. The interested ones should be encouraged into extending this into research and connecting the dots. There is much more to business than just strategy (which also usually comes from history) and spreadsheet calculations. There should be options for inclined students which are just not there in the country.

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