Business history is an empirical sociological field that studies the development of specific companies, business models, government regulation, and the impact of business on society. It also comprises biographies of important people, especially executives, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders. It usually relates to organizational history.
Business history is extremely complex and demanding. There are numerous interrelated disciplines and subject matter in the study of business history. Business historians must possess sophisticated knowledge about the factors that shape economic decisions, the changing cultural milieu in which firms operate, the political systems that affect them, and the people who use and shape the markets. In short, business historians must possess a little time for all the various strands of information that can help them reconstruct the past to develop a better understanding of the present and predict the future.
Henryk Grossman is a Business History Ph.D. holder at Columbia University. According to him, “What you do not want to be is a historian, but a salesman.” This quote clearly characterizes the difficulties faced by business historians pursuing a professional career, as they have to engage themselves in dealing with numerous individuals who have contrasting views, interests, goals, and motivations. As Henryk Grossman states: “One of the main problems in business history is trying to deal with competing frames… All of the data that one could get from sources such as diaries, memoirs, newspapers, diaries, as well as memoirs from key figures, tends to contradict each other, leading to a great deal of uncertainty.”
As stated earlier, business historians often have to deal with competing frames. A prime example is that between the perspectives of bankers and entrepreneurs, who often differ on the scale of their penetration, size of companies, the size of their ambitions, and goals. In addition, business historians also have to contend with businessmen and entrepreneurs who believe that their own company is unique and different from all others in the industry, whereas competitors see little differences and want to emulate the success of their corporate house. The possibility for conflict is real. Nevertheless, there are ways to come up with a more sophisticated understanding of the company, its product, its history, and the impact it has made on its contemporaries.
One of the ways to get a more sophisticated understanding of the company is to use the innovative method of presenting historical data. One method is to analyze the quotes of famous or prominent businessmen and CEOs, whether in print or off-line. Such quotes, some of which may have been quoted in books and diaries, can help business historians gain a better perspective on the corporation. After studying the quotes, the historians can then try and determine what those businessmen and executives were trying to say. For instance, they may ask: “If you were a customer of this company, how would you motivate people to buy your products or services?”
Another question they could ask is: “Do you think the performance of this company’s CEO has had any effect on the sales performance of its primary aluminum executive?” And so on. Using quotes from leading figures in the field will give business historians greater leeway in drawing out conclusions. Furthermore, the study of history can show certain patterns, such as that a particular corporation tends to adopt a specific line when it comes to its leadership or vice versa. Using quotes from important personalities can also help them connect past trends to present events.
There are many examples of quoting scholars who hold opposing views. For example, after reading an article on how one CEO of a leading company changed the way his organization operates, a reader might reasonably infer that the change was brought about by changing the way people were motivated to buy kraft products. After all, the quote refers to a statement made by an executive, whose remarks have been widely publicized. However, one could easily show that the quote was actually issued by a third party who had nothing to do with the company. Likewise, one could show that the quote is biased if it’s been quoted by a rival company leader. The point is that quotations need to be looked at from several angles to make sense out of them.
In general, experts recommend using quotes on historical subjects (i.e., IBM, Microsoft, Cogent, Kodak, Xerox, etc.) for two reasons. First, quotations from such corporate leaders usually have significant value because of their status as leaders. Second, such quotations are easy to find and often provide insights that the average person may not be aware of otherwise.