Why Business History Matters?

Prof. Chinmay Tumbhe of IIMA who has recently taken the baton to teach business history at the institute writes on relevance of the subject:

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?

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….

Highly timely and relevant.

Hope we wake up to the enormous potential of business history in India..

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