Business Historians at the SMS 2018

24 09 2018

A number of business historians are presenting at the Strategic Management Society conference, which is being held this week in Paris. The presence of a number of business historians at SMS in encouraging to me, as it is a sign that business historians are now increasingly participating in debates in strategy. In a sense, these business historians are building on the success of those business historians who have made inroads into the field of organization studies. Earlier this month, I got to hear Juha-Antti Lamberg and Jari Ojala, both of the University of Jyvaskyla, present an important paper on the relationship between business history and strategy.

Even though my own co-authored paper was not accepted by the SMS organizers, I would like to extend warm congratulations to the business historians mentioned here.

Monsanto’s Black Box: Technology, Strategy, and Resource Ownership and Control

Shane Hamilton, University of York
Beatrice D’Ippolito, University of York
The Resource-Based View (RBV) relies upon an under-theorized conception
of ownership and control of resources. We develop a model for qualitatively
measuring the strategic value of intangible resources that takes into
account the level of formality of ownership and the degree of managerial
control over resources. We apply this model to a case study of technology at
Monsanto, examining how the firm’s ownership and control of technology
provided both a useful and problematic resource in the firm’s strategic
transition from chemical manufacturing to agricultural biotechnology


Navigating De-Globalisation: An Historical Perspective of Firm Responses to Institutional

Kieran Conroy, Queen’s University Belfast
Michael Aldous, Queen’s University Belfast

Incorporating a business history lens, this study provides early stage
insights on how firms respond to conflicting institutional logics during
a protracted period of de-globalisation. Drawing on archival data in the
form of a longitudinal analysis of British firms in India during the 20th
century, we identify three epochs, characterised by dominant institutional
logics that generated a typology of firm responses. Navigating intense
conditions of de-globalisation, British firms developed responses that
varied from reactive adaptation, in the form of managed exit, and
compliance, to proactive strategic agency through negotiation with local
stakeholders. The paper answers calls for greater integration between
international business and business history perspectives in order to
develop a holistic appreciation of how de-globalisation affects the
dynamic interaction between firms and institutional stakeholders.


Session Chairs
Fabian Bernhard, EDHEC Business School
George Tovstiga, EDHEC Business School

David Bork, Family Business Matters
Ludovic Cailluet, EDHEC Business School
Nadine Kammerlander, WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management
Helena McDonnell, Cambridge Family Enterprise
Carlo Salvato, Bocconi University
Family businesses are a prevalent form of organization form in most of
the world’s economies and their strategic approaches differ from other
organizations. The aim of this panel session is to identify and reflect on
critical questions regarding latest developments in the field of strategy
pertaining to family businesses – and specifically related to trends
such as digitalization, demographic change, and political tendencies
of protectionism. Questions include: How does strategizing differ in
a family business from a nonfamily business? What are the unique
strategic challenges of family businesses when it comes to dealing with
an increasingly digital world? How do family businesses strategize in the
light of demographic change? Do the latest tendencies of protectionism
(e.g. US administration, Brexit, etc.) play towards or against family

The Strategic Use of Historical Narratives in Family Business

13 09 2018

I’m sharing a link to a fascinating new paper on how family firms use historical narratives strategically. The paper is doubly interesting to me as it intersects with my own research interests and is consistent with my observations about how the entrepreneurs in my extended family have used historical narratives in their ventures. Congratulations to Rania Labaki Ludovic Cailluet and Fabian Bernhard on this paper.

Labaki R., Bernhard F., Cailluet L. (2019) The Strategic Use of Historical Narratives in the Family Business. In: Memili E., Dibrell C. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Heterogeneity among Family Firms. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

Labaki R., Bernhard F., Cailluet L. (2019) The Strategic Use of Historical Narratives in the Family Business. In: Memili E., Dibrell C. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Heterogeneity among Family Firms. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham



Using Business History to Improve Managerial Decision-Making in Canada and Germany

6 09 2018


As readers of this blog will know, I do a fair bit of research on how managers use historical knowledge. Part of this research is on the use of historical knowledge by managers for sense-giving (e.g., communicating with others, persuading others to do X), but I’m also looking at how managers use history for sense-making (for the private purpose of figuring out what is going on in the world). My own research is starting to produce hard statistical evidence that using historical knowledge does improve managerial decision-making.


I am, therefore, very happy to spread the word that my friend, and one-time research collaborator Dr. Laurence B. Mussio has launched a major new international project aimed at helping firms in Canada, Germany, and elsewhere make more effective use of history. The details are below:


Signal Influence Executive Research & Communications, Inc., (SIERC), Canada, and Gesellschaft für Unternehmensgeschichte GmbH (GUG), Germany, announced today a new strategic alliance to deliver future-oriented consulting stemming from research based on a client’s historical past.

GUG is a prominent and long-established presence in Germany in the discipline of business history, with 16 full-time employees and scores of publications to its credit. SIERC has overseen several multi-year projects on the long-run experience of prominent Canadian corporations such as Bell, Sun Life Financial and Bank of Montreal Financial Group. SIERC has developed a unique service that uses research based on a client firm’s long-run experience to help the client focus on its contemporary challenges.

“We are confident that, with our SIERC Method and experience we will bring important insights to the strategic challenges that companies face in stakeholder engagement, cultural and organizational change, and communication strategies,” said SIERC CEO Dr. Laurence B. Mussio. “Uncovering the evidence-based narrative of experiences in an organization’s past can lead to surprising insights for contemporary decision makers.” “The customized case studies that the SIERC-GUG alliance offer essentially boil down to three simple questions: Where are you now? How did you get here? What comes next? The questions may be simple, but the best answers emerge through the kind of research and delivery that we specialize in,” Dr. Mussio concluded.

GUG Managing Director Dr. Andrea Schneider-Braunberger said, “Our strategic alliance with SIERC allows us to provide unique and complementary services to the ones we already offer. German firms, as elsewhere, face an environment of growing global uncertainty, both in the European Union and in the larger global trading system. For us, this is another opportunity to serve businesses and enterprise in Germany and beyond with research, analysis and insight of the highest quality – and connect it to the strategic challenges they face today.”

The collaboration envisioned by the strategic alliance agreement has already begun, with activities expected to ramp up in October 2018.


Signal Influence Executive Research & Communications, Inc. (SIERC) is a boutique consulting firm specializing in the strategic application of organizational experience for senior leadership. Headquartered in Toronto, Canada, we are connected to a global network of scholars, researchers and consultants. Together, we help transform insight into strategy. Since 2002, SIERC has served elite clients in financial services, telecommunications and information technology, as well as in the government and university sectors. Visit us at

About GUG

For over 40 years, Gesellschaft für Unternehmensgeschichte (GUG) mbH, Germany, has been producing company histories and advising companies in the fields of history, communication and the creation of historical archives. In doing so, GUG supports authors, publishers and clients in all phases of the production process — from conception to print-ready manuscript, including communication concepts and events. The projects are diverse, from comprehensive studies to specifically focused ones, undertaken for many reasons, from internal understanding to the celebration of milestones. Visit us at

Things I Dislike about the Constitution

6 09 2018

Andrew Smith: Leonid Sirota, legal academic of strong originalist views, has published an interesting (to me) blog post on which features of the Canadian constitution he personally dislikes. His post will likely be read and discussed by academics who have had to think about the Canadian constitution and its specific features (that includes me). His post will also interest scholars in other countries in which people use “Originalist” theories to interpret key constitutional documents, [Originalism means that when a court has to parse out the meaning of words in a document such as the US constitution or the constitution of India, they have to take historical context and original intention of the drafters into account}.

Sirota makes some interesting points about various features of the Canadian constitution.

However, I would like to “go meta” here and ask the more fundamental question about why people in Canada (or indeed any country with a written constitution) ought to care about the intentions, values, etc of the individuals who wrote constitutional documents long ago. In other words, why is Originalism a valid approach? Why shouldn’t we adopt the Tom Paine view that we don’t need to worry about the opinions of people who lived long ago, since doing so would result in the tyranny of the dead over the living?

I think that best justification for any form of Originalism is similar to justification for the meta-position that the peer review process improves papers. Ultimately, this justification is rooted in the old insight that “two heads are better than one.” Constitutions, unlike ordinary statutes, are the product of processes that are long, complicated, involve multiple veto points, and require extensive debate and reflection. As as result, they embody the collective wisdom of many individuals. They are thus a “wisdom tradition” that we in the present ought to respect, at least most of the time. Moreover, constitutions tend to be written either during crisis periods, eras of elevated or Knightian uncertainty, when individual political actors have a limited ability of forsee what their future careers have in store for them. Such constitutional moments are the closest thing we have in the real world to the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Ceteris paribus, we would expect constitutions designed during such epochs to be more like to exhibit evidence of disinterested design than other sets of rules. We should, therefore, be somewhat deferential to the products of such design processes.

Double Aspect

In an interesting Volokh Conspiracy post, Ilya Somin provides a “list of several areas where … the Constitution [of the United States] gets important issues badly wrong”. This is in response to concerns that (American) originalists, most of whom tend to be conservatives or libertarians, come to their position on how to interpret (their) constitution because they think that originalism yields results consonant with their political views. As Professor Somin notes, “[s]imilar charges, of course, are often made against living constitutionalists, who have long been accused of just coming up with ways to constitutionalize their (mostly liberal) political views”. But, even if one’s work is focused on those areas where one’s political and constitutional views are aligned, for any principled person there are likely to be areas where this alignment break down.

Here are some of mine (for the Canadian constitution of course, not the American one). It is…

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Business Historian Podcast Alert: Wharton’s Natalya Vinokurova On Whether the U.S. Is Headed for Another Mortgage Crisis?

2 09 2018

From the Knowledge@Wharton blog:

Ten years after the mortgage-fueled Great Recession, several of the market and structural components remain in place that could set the environment for the next crisis. In her latest research, Wharton management professor Natalya Vinokurova takes a historical look at the development of mortgage-backed securities and finds fascinating parallels to the present day. She spoke to Knowledge@Wharton about her papers, “Failure to Learn from Failure: The 2008 Mortgage Crisis as a Déjà vu of the Mortgage Meltdown of 1994” (Business History) and “How Mortgage-Backed Securities Became Bonds: The Emergence, Evolution, and Acceptance of Mortgage-Backed Securities in the United States, 1960–1987,” (Enterprise and Society) and why one should heed the warnings of history.

You can listen to the podcast here.

Some Thoughts on the Accountable Capitalism Act

17 08 2018

Over in the US, Senator Elizabeth Warren has published the details of a proposed law that would fundamentally change US corporate governance. Matt Yglesias has given us an excellent summary of Elizabeth Warren’s corporate governance bill. Yglesias draws on a great deal of academic research to show why the bill’s core idea, requiring large US corporations to give workers’ representatives board representation, is a good idea. As is typical in a Vox piece by Yglesias, there are copious references to academic research on the problems with US corporate governance (e.g., the short-termist approach that was promoted by the rise of shareholder value ideology in US boardrooms in the 1980s).

Ygelsias writes:

Warren wants to eliminate the huge financial incentives that entice CEOs to flush cash out to shareholders rather than reinvest in businesses. She wants to curb corporations’ political activities. And for the biggest corporations, she’s proposing a dramatic step that would ensure workers and not just shareholders get a voice on big strategic decisions.

Warren hopes this will spur a return to greater corporate responsibility, and bring back some other aspects of the more egalitarian era of American capitalism post-World War II — more business investment, more meaningful career ladders for workers, more financial stability, and higher pay.

Later on he writes

What’s more, while the codetermination aspect of Warren’s proposal does draw inspiration from Germany, fundamentally, the pitch for the overall package is a lot closer to “Make America Great Again” than to “make America like Scandinavia.” The basic notion is that the American private sector used to operate in a better, more inclusive way before the rise of shareholder supremacy and with a couple of firm regulatory kicks we can get it to work that way again.

My late grandfather, who was an old-line communist in his day, used to tell me with mixed admiration and regret that FDR had saved capitalism by entrenching institutions that guaranteed broadly shared prosperity. Those institutions, fundamentally, are what was undone in the shareholder value revolution.

Warren’s bet is that at a time when the political right is increasingly not even bothering to pretend to offer economic solutions anymore, America can pull off the same trick a second time — offering the public not a huge new expansion of government programs, but a revival of the midcentury stakeholder capitalism that once built a middle class so prosperous that the idea of surging mass interest in socialism was unthinkable.


I’ve co-authored a historical paper that deals with many of the issues mentioned here (fingers crossed, it should come out later this year).  I am, therefore, fascinated by the debate that Warren’s bill has sparked. For a gateway into this debate, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. I will continue to follow this debate and will doubtless have more to blog about in the future. Right now, I have four main thoughts about the bill.

  1. First, as a business historian, I am fascinated by how history has been used by the advocates of co-determination in US companies. As I see it, history is being used in two main ways: to try to understand what the hell is going on in the world right now (let’s call it sense-making use of history) and then to persuade others that the corrective to the problems now facing US capitalism include co-determination (you can call it the use of history for sense-giving or rhetorical history, depending on which academic clique you prefer to get your jargon from). In terms of the use of history for thinking about problems, we see this use of history in the prominent role that historical scholars, including Business History Conference member William Lazonick (U Mass Amherst), played in helping to work out the ideas that went into this bill. (Other academics also appear to have been part of the Brains Trust behind this bill). For years, Lazonick has been writing about the terrible effects  the adoption of Shareholder Value Ideology in US firms has had on R&D expenditure, treatment of workers, etc. In his scholarly works, he has contrasted SHV with the philosophy that informed how US companies were run in the period from the 1940s to about 1980. Lazonick’s jeremiad against the post-1980 excesses of SHV can be viewed, in part, as a call for a return to “the Good Old Days.” It’s interesting to see how the historical research done by Lazonick and others (e.g., Emeritus Dean Roger Martin of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management) is now starting to inform the thinking of policymakers (e.g., Warren) and journalists (e.g., Yglesias). As the popularity of slogans such as “Make America Great Again”, appeals to restore a previous (imagined and vaguely defined golden age) can be effective in political communication.
  2.  Warren’s bill says that the requirement that workers have board representation in corporations would only kick in once a firm’s revenues hits the arbitrary threshold of $1Billion per year. I think that companies could evade this requirement via the subdivision of firms owned by a single holding company. Obviously this provision of the bill needs more thought.
  3. What about the representation of the overseas workforces of US companies? What about the representation of workers based in the US who aren’t US citizens? The cosmopolitan internationalist in me is sympathetic to the idea of giving non-citizen workers the right to vote for representatives on US corporate boards. However, if I were a political strategist advising Warren on how to sell this proposal to working-class native-born Americans, I would suggest that she create a conceptual linkage between national democracy and workplace democracy by restricting the right to vote for board representatives to those workers who also have the right to vote in US elections (i.e., to citizens of adult age).
  4. My libertarian friends ought to support this measure as involves less bureaucracy and less state control of firms than the main alternative mechanism for limiting shareholder power that is being discussed right now (i.e., more intensive regulation of firms by the state). Indeed, I envision a grand bargain whereby the core reforms in Warren’s bill were coupled by de-regulation. I think that libertarians ought to agree that Warren’s short bill is preferable to the massive Dodd-Frank legislation and thousands of pages of regulatory rules that grew out of it.



An Economist’s Guide to Economic History

14 08 2018