Elisabeth Koll

Associate Professor of Business Administration (Leave of Absence)

Elisabeth Köll is an Associate Professor in the Entrepreneurial Management unit at the Harvard Business School. After pursuing her undergraduate education at the University of Bonn in Germany, and at Fudan University, Shanghai, she received her PhD in Chinese Business History from Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She has taught The Entrepreneurial Manager (TEM) in the first-year MBA curriculum and a graduate seminar on global business history in the doctoral program. As part of the school’s January term program, she leads an Immersion Experience Program in China and has previously taught in the elective course “Doing Business in China”. Within Harvard University she is affiliated with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies as a member of its executive committee, participates as Senior Scholar in the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies and maintains an affiliation with the History Department.

Professor Köll’s central research agenda focuses on the managerial, legal, and financial evolution of firms and the role of entrepreneurship in China throughout the twentieth century to the present. In her work she pursues an alternative approach to the field of business history by shifting the analysis from external factors such as government policies, local politics, or family networks to internal aspects of business institutions such as control and ownership, accounting, and management. Her book From Cotton Mill to Business Enterprise: The Emergence of Regional Enterprises in Modern China (Harvard, 2003) demonstrates how concepts, definitions, and interpretations of property rights, corporate structures, and business practices in contemporary China can be analyzed in terms of their historical, institutional, and cultural roots. Elisabeth’s current research involves a project on the development of Chinese railroads as infrastructure and business institutions and their significance to the economic and political interests of the Chinese state. The book project, under contract with Harvard University Press, explores how railroad companies have contributed to China’s economic and social growth and furthered the country’s political development as a modern nation-state.

Elisabeth has lived and conducted field work in China for many years. She began her studies in Shanghai in 1986 as an undergraduate and gained her first practical business experience working as an intern for a Chinese-German joint-venture firm in Tianjin in the summer of 1987. Since then she returns to China on a regular basis and maintains a research affiliation with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. She collaborates with colleagues in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and has received various grants from organizations such as the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation and the Research Foundation of Japanese Banks in Tokyo. In 2005 she received a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies which allowed her to pursue her research work in Shanghai, Jinan, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Hong Kong for a year. From 2004 to 2006 she was elected president of the Historical Society for 20th-Century China (HSTCC). Prior to coming to HBS she taught at Case Western Reserve University.

  1. Overview

    In my research historical inquiry plays an important part in understanding the continuities from the pre-1949 past and the complex convergence of business institutions in the process of China’s current economic, political, and social modernization. Historians are able to offer a unique contribution to our understanding of China’s business environment by uncovering the institutional and organizational origins of firms, different forms of entrepreneurship in society, and the relationship between government and business in a long-term perspective. For example, historical analyses with an external focus have demonstrated the complex political and economic agenda of the Chinese state in its interaction with businesses and entrepreneurs which long predates the 1949 revolution and socialism. This insight is relevant to scholars comparing business development under different political regimes and varieties of capitalism as well as managers who need to understand the principle of aligning interests with government authorities when doing business in China today.

    Keywords: business history; China; business government relations; entrepreneurs; family business; industrial development; infrastructure; Transportation; Entrepreneurship; History; Manufacturing Industry; Transportation Industry; Rail Industry; Construction Industry; Asia;

  2. Railroads and the Making of Modern China

    My current book project is entitled Railroads and the Making of the Modern China and explores China’s economic and socio-political transformation from the last decades of the empire to the present using railroad infrastructure as a focus. Based on a large collection of historical data across select regions in China, my project analyzes how railroad infrastructure and railroad companies as new business institutions contributed to the emergence of complex work hierarchies, technology transfer, the rise of the engineering profession, business linkages and social mobility. One particular focus of my research involves the complex interaction between railroad companies, government agencies, and political authorities.

    In connection with my previous historical work, this research addresses issues relevant to contemporary China. For example, the development of China’s communication and transportation infrastructure features prominently on the government’s agenda to create economic growth and political stability. With regard to the business environment in contemporary China, the history of Chinese railroads highlights the origins of infrastructure development in core areas along the coastal corridor and the East, strong regional and limited national market integration, and the continuing linkage of modern rail transportation systems with alternative transportation methods.
  3. Buyers, Sellers, Manufacturers in China’s Emerging Market around 1900

    Ever since the economic reforms in the post-Mao period China’s economy as an emerging market has attracted much interest. However, we tend to forget that China was already an emerging market at the turn of the 19th century, if not earlier. This book-length study approaches the concept of the emerging market in a broader historical context and explores the opening and growth of the Chinese market in the light of the industrial and commercial modernization taking off around 1900. By analyzing the relationship between Chinese and foreign companies as buyers, sellers, and manufacturers of goods in an evolving consumer market the project identifies the institutional and structural strengths and weaknesses that have shaped the development of firms, entrepreneurs, and their relationship with the state.

    The historical approach to understanding China as an emerging market emphasizes how so many institutional, political, and socio-economic phenomena in the present did not originate in the socialist system but can be traced back to the 19th century and beyond. This project also shows how so many issues of concern to participants in China’s emerging market today were similar issues a century ago, ranging from legal disputes, volatile exchange rates to national interest debates. This project shows the strategic responses of Chinese and foreign firms to the opportunities and challenges in an emerging market and its strong interaction with the global economy.
  4. Technology and Knowledge Transfer in the Evolution of China’s Machine Industry

    This work-in-progress provides a historical perspective on the role of foreign companies as providers of machinery equipment and facilitators of technology transfer in China from the last decade of the 19th century to the early 1950s. The project focuses on a number of British, American, German, and overseas Chinese international companies and their activities and operations in the Chinese market. These foreign companies tried to align their interests with the government in order to secure beneficial relationships but also to beat other foreign competitors in the Chinese market. They competed not only for market share, distribution channels and customers but also for managerial talent and Chinese brokers necessary to run the business operations. As the paper demonstrates, foreign machine manufacturers in the early 1900s were as much motivated by the promise of China’s "vast emerging market" due to industrialization and modernization efforts as their counterparts in the early 21st century. Finally, the project explores the long-term impact of foreign imports and their significance for the Chinese machine industry in terms of indigenous technological development and import substitution.