CFP: From Public Interest to Private Profit: The Changing Political and Social Legitimacy of International Business

6 11 2015

AS: This CFP for a workshop at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management should interest many of my readers. Most of the attendees will be business historians and political economy scholars. We have been told that paper abstracts and CVs should be sent the local organizer, Prof. Chris Kobrak. The other main organizer is Dr William Pettigrew at Kent, who currently holds a large Leverhulme Trust grant to support his very interesting project on the Global Determinants of the English Constitution.

From Public Interest to Private Profit: The Changing Political and Social Legitimacy of International Business

Corporations started their lives as social, political, as well as commercial entities. Organizations like guilds and municipalities concentrated on the local government of economic activity. From the later middle ages, Europeans began to use corporations to stimulate and govern international commerce. Organizations like the Hanseatic League and the Merchant Adventurers Company began to adapt the corporation’s traditional concern with the exercise of local authority to the challenges of pursuing international sources of profit. By the nineteenth century, corporations became less accountable to the societies and states that had once legitimated their privileges and became more self-consciously economic, private, and financial organizations. Since then, many interests have attempted to reintroduce the social purpose of corporations. This has happened with different emphases across geographical and cultural contexts. In continental European countries, for example, the social remit of corporations has proven more durable than in Anglo-Saxon countries. Family businesses with paternalistic policies have emphasized the social dimension of their activities. Over the past two decades, corporate social responsibility has become the latest manifestation of this historic attempt to restore the social role of business. Throughout these developments multinationals have played a special role, because of their size and due to their multicultural social and political impact.

This long-term narrative of the erosion of the local and social dimensions of the corporation suggests a number of important questions.

  1. What role did the internationalization of the corporation play in altering the balance of the three historic dimensions of corporations – the social, political, and commercial?
  1. How did the development of market theories of international commerce in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries work alongside this internationalization to further detach corporations from their social and political roots?
  1. Why has the social purpose of corporations become so different in different social contexts?

Funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust in the UK, and hosted by the Centre for the Political Economies of International Commerce (PEIC) at the University of Kent, UK, and the Business History Group at the Rotman School of Business, this two-day conference in Toronto on 5 and 6 May, 2016 will bring historians, business historians, management scholars, and business practitioners together to discuss these and other questions within a long timeframe and within a cross-disciplinary framework.

Between the seventeenth century and the present, the corporation evolved from a society for government into a profit-seeking entity. How should we understand that history and what is its significance for the 21st century world? A longitudinal history of the multinational corporation not only informs present day businesses about the development of the corporate entity, but also sheds light on its relationships with state authority and public society, offers new insights into the corporation’s broader historical significance, and suggests how its current social and economic roles and responsibilities might develop in the future. Tracing the history of the trading corporation from its sixteenth and seventeenth century genesis through to the present day provides a long-term perspective on the changes and continuities within corporate life as well as some of the pressing policy questions that business historians are well placed to answer: how might the corporation rediscover its social purpose; how feasible is a cross-cultural consensus on the moral and social rationales of transnational businesses; how can global commercial concerns consider their local societal obligations?

This conference will offer an interdisciplinary forum in which to discuss these arenas of corporate life and their change over time. The conversation will offer members of the business community the opportunity to place present day corporate activity into an instructive historical context and to discuss how corporate actors in the past addressed challenges and problems parallel to those facing corporations today. Representatives of corporations will offer their experience about international business to assist the scholarly understanding of how corporations operate and how present day issues and concerns can inform understandings of the past.

The event will include a keynote lecture, an opening panel from business practitioners in which the present-day challenges facing international corporations are discussed. The first day of the conference will focus on the period: 1600-1850. The second day will focus on 1850 to the present day. The conference will end with a summative panel session in which business practitioners reflect on the place of present day corporations in their five-century history.

Chrystia Freeland on Inequality

5 11 2015

Canada’s new minister of International Trade is Chrystia Freeland, a Harvard and Oxford graduate, former Bloomberg executive, and author. (see here) In 2013 she gave a TED talk in Scotland based on her book on increasing inequality, The talk is nuanced, thoughtful, and contains some insights that people across the political spectrum will agree with. Note how Freeland offers olive branches to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street here.  Freeland distinguishes the various causes (technological and political) of rising (within-country) inequality.  She is obviously a superb communicator and is capable of explaining complex trends to a mass audience. Much like the book on which it is based, the talk is long on diagnosis/description and short on cure/prescription: Freeland does a great job of explaining why rising inequality is a problem and what is causing it but the talk sort of trails off when it comes to proposing solutions. In fact, her talk doesn’t really offer any practical solutions aside from calling for some sort of “New New Deal.” Her talk, and the book it is based on, are therefore reminiscent of the more famous work on inequality by Thomas Piketty, which presents tonnes of evidence about rising inequality and then devotes just a few pages to proposing a solution that isn’t terribly practical.

In any event, her TED talk is worth watching, as are the two following videos, which show, respectively, Freeland’s conversation with her friend Larry Summers at Rotman (very serious) and Freeland’s 2014 appearance on the Bill Maher Show (funny).

More Thoughts on HSBC Now

4 11 2015

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the superb videos about its history that HSBC has placed on YouTube Channel, HSBC Now. (I discovered these videos by accident last week). These videos typically involve an HSBC employee travelling to a site and looking at artefacts related to an individual in the bank’s history who was their antecedent in some sense.

One of the videos focuses on the evolving position of Chinese workers in the bank. This video was particularly interesting to me as I’ve recently published an academic paper on HSBC compradors, the Chinese cultural and linguistic brokers who linked this British-controlled bank to the Chinese business system. (See abstract and link below to the academic article below).

In the video I’m sharing today, Eric Yu, Head of HSBC’s China Desk in Germany, learns about the stories of Peter Lee Shunwah and Zee Tsungyung, whose commitment helped the bank to earn the trust of Chinese customers in the 1920s and 1930s. The video discusses the challenges researchers face in trying to use limited archival materials to reconstruct what these early Chinese employees did. HSBC has a wonderful corporate archive but thanks to war and various other disasters not all of the documents we would want have survived.

Please note that I had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of these great videos.  If you want to read the paper I mentioned, the details are here:

Smith, Andrew. “The winds of change and the end of the Comprador System in the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.” Business History  (2015): 1-28.

Paper abstract: There was a marked shift in attitudes in the capitalist world in the 1960s. In Britain and other Western democracies, workplace discrimination became both illegal and socially unacceptable in the years around 1965. At about the same time, decolonisation accelerated. This article will show how the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation responded to this changing environment by reforming the way it treated non-British workers in Asian markets. Prior to the 1960s, workers had been assigned to ethnic layers, with ethnic Chinese individuals occupying the lowest group and British expatriates filling all executive posts. In the 1960s, this system was scrapped in favour of a less discriminatory one. This article, which is based on research in the company’s archive as well as other primary sources, will explore how the bank shed the cultural and institutional legacies of colonialism, which included the so-called comprador system.

“Unknown vistas in management and organization history: a workshop.”

24 10 2015

Management and Organization History Cluster Winter School. University of York. Monday 7 December 2015.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

― Donald Rumsfeld, 2002.

Towards the unknown

The historic turn in Management and Organization Studies (MOS) inaugurated nearly twenty-five years ago appears to have legitimated theoretically sensitive historical studies in a range of management journals, and has seen widespread use of organization theory within business history.

While the philosophical debate about the role of theory narrative, and memory related to method in historical work in MOS will surely continue, we have decided to turn our attention to new vistas, to continue the disciplinary voyage and to ask, simply, what’s next?

The purpose of this Winter School is therefore to identify, outline and discuss the unknowns (both known and unknown) in the field of management and organization history, broadly conceived.

What are the areas and topics about which we are ignorant? Why are they unknown? How might we know them? What new methods and disciplinary collaborations might be required to develop new knowledge? Where will the great disciplinary challenges lie in the coming years? And how shall we address them?

The workshop will be conducted via informal roundtable discussions. Contributions might include (but are not limited to) consideration of historiography, methodology, temporality, historicity, theory, sources, archives, argument(s) and interpretation(s), myths, paradigms, problems, puzzles, inter-disciplinarity, new empirical topics, public history and policy, history and the ‘business humanities’, or any topic which has the potential to open an unknown vista.

We intend that the workshop will lead to an edited volume consisting of short discursive chapters that continue and develop the workshop discussions.

If you are interested contributing individually or with others, or simply to attend, please contact Simon Mollan:

The workshop is free. Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

How the Internet Became Commercial

24 10 2015

AS: I have just ordered this intriguing book by Shane Greenstein.

How the Internet Became Commercial: Innovation, Privatization, and the Birth of a New Network (The Kauffman Foundation Series on Innovation and Entrepreneurship)

In less than a decade, the Internet went from being a series of loosely connected networks used by universities and the military to the powerful commercial engine it is today. This book describes how many of the key innovations that made this possible came from entrepreneurs and iconoclasts who were outside the mainstream–and how the commercialization of the Internet was by no means a foregone conclusion at its outset.

Shane Greenstein traces the evolution of the Internet from government ownership to privatization to the commercial Internet we know today. This is a story of innovation from the edges. Greenstein shows how mainstream service providers that had traditionally been leaders in the old-market economy became threatened by innovations from industry outsiders who saw economic opportunities where others didn’t–and how these mainstream firms had no choice but to innovate themselves. New models were tried: some succeeded, some failed. Commercial markets turned innovations into valuable products and services as the Internet evolved in those markets. New business processes had to be created from scratch as a network originally intended for research and military defense had to deal with network interconnectivity, the needs of commercial users, and a host of challenges with implementing innovative new services.

How the Internet Became Commercial demonstrates how, without any central authority, a unique and vibrant interplay between government and private industry transformed the Internet.

Bill Cooke on Management History

23 10 2015

Check out this fantastic short video in which Professor Bill Cooke of the University of York (UK) School of Management talks about why the history of management should be incorporated into management research and teaching. The animated graphics in the video look great. Congratulations to his employer for allocating the funds to produce a video with such high production values.

New Blog on Org History

17 10 2015

Stephanie Decker, Christina Lubinski, and Dan Wadhwani have established a new blog devoted to historical approaches to studying organizations. Here is the short description:

In recent years a number of scholars from around world have hosted seminars, events at conferences, published articles and books and run research projects and networks in this field. This website and blog aims to be a hub on which we can publish our ongoing activities and publications, and exchange ideas and comments, for those involved in the network or for those just curious about this line of research.

I’m very happy that this blog has been created. I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of content and publishing rhythm the authors develop.


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