Learning From Business History

Last Updated Mar 19, 2008 1:10 PM EDT

A quick note today on the arrival of The Oxford Handbook of Business History, an intriguing and opinionated survey of business management theory and research weighted mostly to the post-1950 era.

The collection of essays around major business themes (approaches and debates; forms of business organization; functions of enterprise; enterprise and society) was compiled by editors Geoffrey Jones of Harvard Business School and Jonathan Zeitlin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can read my interview with Jones on HBS Working Knowledge.

Although of interest to researchers, the authors believe the work can help educate and inform business practitioners as well.

Example: In the chapter Accounting, Information, and Communications, finance managers might be interested in learning how accounting rules have developed in different countries over time, be brought up to date with a review of major advances in theory and practice, and understand influences that globalization is having on the field.

My takeaways from reading the book:

  • Under a bushel. Business historians have seemingly hidden their research in a world little visited except by other historians. One of the themes of the Handbook is how much this body of literature can provide perspective to current management trends and fads -- if only we knew it was there.
  • Dynamic Research. Business history is not a stagnant field; it grows with the times. Research is well underway on such current areas of interest as corporate governance, industrial districts, and cartels.
  • Geography Bound. Business history outside the West is not well documented. If you are a business historian looking for a place to study, head to China, India, South America, Africa, the Middle East. These areas undoubtedly have a lot to teach us.
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.