Business History

Harvard Business School has a long tradition of investing in business history, and of asserting its central role in management education. In 1927, the School created the first endowed professorship in the field. It also founded the field’s first journal, the Business History Review. Since the work of Joseph Schumpeter at Harvard's Center for Entrepreneurial History in the 1940s, the School has taken an interdisciplinary and global approach to understanding business history. Business historians undertake deep primary source research to form conceptual conclusions about the evolution of enterprises and business systems. Alfred D. Chandler's Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise (1962) is often hailed as having provided the basis for strategy and resource-based theories of management. Today, business historians at the school investigate a broad range of themes including:
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Innovation
  • Globalization, with an emphasis on the economic and social changes of capitalism
  • Business and environmental sustainability approaches over time
  • The relationship of business and democracy and the impact of governments on the business environment
The historical collections at Baker Library, in the form of company ledgers, board minutes, correspondence, sales reports, advertisements, and thousands of other documents dating as far back as the fifteenth century, provide unmatched resources for primary research.  Extensive studies point to the rigor of our research, such as Geoffrey Jones's analysis of how entrepreneurs from the US, Europe, Asia, and Latin America developed the modern global beauty industry.  Building on our foundations, business history provides a unique resource to enable educators, practitioners and policy makers to learn from the past.

  1. Samuel Slater & Francis Cabot Lowell: The Factory System in U.S. Cotton Manufacturing

    At the time of the American War of Independence (1776-1783) and for several decades after it, Great Britain dominated the global production of cotton textiles. In fact, Britain became so dominant in textile manufacturing and trading that Manchester, its industrial capital, was nicknamed "Cottonopolis." By contrast, American manufacturing of export-oriented or even tradable-quality cotton textiles was practically nonexistent. This position of relative American backwardness changed with the influence of two prominent individuals: Samuel Slater (1768-1835) and Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817). Slater, a skilled British textile machinery engineer helped to develop the country's first cotton spinning mill. Lowell, a member of a prominent New England mercantile family, established the first integrated cotton spinning and weaving facility in what became the city of Lowell, Massachusetts. Together Slater and Lowell brought the sophistication of British industrial revolution technology and introduced innovative methods of factory production to the United States.

    Keywords: Technological Innovation; Production; Business History; Manufacturing Industry; Great Britain; Massachusetts;

    Citation:

    Nicholas, Tom, and Matthew Guilford. "Samuel Slater & Francis Cabot Lowell: The Factory System in U.S. Cotton Manufacturing." Harvard Business School Case 814-065, January 2014.
  2. Historical Origins of Environmental Sustainability in the German Chemical Industry, 1950s-1980s

    This working paper examines the growth of corporate environmentalism in the West German chemical industry between the 1950s and the 1980s. German business has been regarded as pioneering corporate environmentalism after World War II. In contrast, this study reveals major commonalities between the sustainability strategies of leading German and American firms until the 1970s. However during that decade the German firms diverged from their American counterparts in using public relations strategies not only to contain fallout from criticism of their pollution impact, but also to create opportunities for changes in corporate culture to encourage sustainability. While the U.S. chemical industry remained defensive and focused on legal compliance, there was a greater proactivity among the German firms. This paper stresses the importance of regional embeddedness of leading firms in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which made their reputations especially vulnerable to criticism. The research supports organizational sociology theory, which has identified the importance of visibility in corporate green strategies. The German chemical firms were pioneers in understanding that investing in environmental sustainability could provide an opportunity to create value for the firm by delivering both commercial and reputational benefits.

    Keywords: sustainability; Green Business; business history; chemical industry; pollution; Environmental Sustainability; Business History; Chemical Industry; Germany; United States;

    Citation:

    Jones, Geoffrey, and Christina Lubinski. "Historical Origins of Environmental Sustainability in the German Chemical Industry, 1950s-1980s." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-018, August 2013.
  3. Ford vs. GM: The Evolution of Mass Production (A)

    This case explores the very different paths taken by the Ford Motor Company and the General Motors Corporation in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Henry Ford's Model T was a car for the masses. After considerable experimentation, Ford Motor perfected a mass production system that converted the vast majority of jobs in the factory into routine tasks. It pioneered the moving assembly line, and it pursued processes that became increasingly integrated and mechanized. While its single-minded focus on cost minimization led to spectacular market success for a time, the resulting inflexibility made it difficult for the company to respond to market changes. This created an opportunity for General Motors and others, particularly in the face of technological shifts to closed-body designs and metal stamping technology, as well as the marketing-led idea of the annual model change.

    The case offers a setting to examine several frameworks: exploration versus exploitation, the emergence of dominant designs, and vertical integration versus transaction costs and supplier hold-up. The (A) case closes with the question of what GM should do about supplier Fisher Body. The (B) case summarizes the shift to all-steel body stamping and engine manufacturing as the core technologies for automobile production, and how these changes made it difficult for Ford to maintain its first-mover advantage.

    Keywords: innovation; Exploration; dominant design; Vertical Integration; Business Growth and Maturation; Business History; Innovation and Management; Innovation Strategy; Technological Innovation; Leading Change; Growth and Development Strategy; Product Positioning; Product Design; Product Development; Business Strategy; Corporate Strategy; Vertical Integration; Auto Industry; Manufacturing Industry; Michigan;

    Citation:

    Shih, Willy. "Ford vs. GM: The Evolution of Mass Production (A)." Harvard Business School Case 614-010, August 2013. (Revised November 2013.)
  4. Novartis: Leading a Global Enterprise

    Novartis, the world's leading healthcare company, was formed in 1996 out of a merger of two very different, mid-tier Switzerland-based pharma companies. The case traces the company's evolution over the past 17 years, as it transformed into a truly global enterprise with 127,000 employees of 153 nationalities in 140 countries generating $56.7 billion in 2012 revenues and $9.6 billion in net income, making the firm one of the world's largest and most profitable companies. CEO since 2010, Joe Jimenez had taken over from one of the merger's architects and visionary legacy CEO Daniel Vasella. He recognized that the global health care environment would create severe challenges for Novartis in the years ahead and that Novartis needed to make sure it had the right strategy, structure, talent and spirit to live up to its ambitions.

    Keywords: Multinational Firms and Management; Talent and Talent Management; Organizational Structure; Organizational Culture; Success; Globalized Markets and Industries; Management Teams; Change Management; Business History; Mergers and Acquisitions; Global Strategy; Health Care and Treatment; Pharmaceutical Industry; Health Industry; Switzerland;

    Citation:

    George, William W., Krishna G. Palepu, and Carin-Isabel Knoop. "Novartis: Leading a Global Enterprise." Harvard Business School Case 413-096, May 2013. (Revised July 2013.)
  5. Entrepreneurs, Firms and Global Wealth since 1850

    This working paper integrates the role of entrepreneurship and firms into debates on why Asia, Latin America and Africa were slow to catch up with the West following the Industrial Revolution and the advent of modern economic growth. It argues that the currently dominant explanations, which focus on deficient institutions, poor human capital development, geography and culture are important, but not sufficient. This is partly because recent research in business history has shown that several of the arguments are not empirically proved, but especially because the impact of these factors on the creation and performance of innovative business enterprises is not clearly specified. Modern economic growth diffused from its origins in the North Sea region to elsewhere in western and northern Europe, across the Atlantic, and later to Japan, but struggled to get traction elsewhere. The societal and cultural embeddedness of the new technologies posed significant entrepreneurial challenges. The best equipped to overcome these challenges were often entrepreneurs based in minorities who held significant advantages in capital-raising and trust levels. By the interwar years productive modern business enterprise was emerging across the non-Western world. Often local and Western managerial practices were combined to produce hybrid forms of business enterprise. After 1945 many governmental policies designed to facilitate catch-up ended up crippling these emergent business enterprises without putting effective alternatives in place. The second global economy has provided more opportunities for catch up from the Rest, and has seen the rapid growth of globally competitive businesses in Asia, Latin America and Africa. This is explained not only by institutional reforms, but by new ways for business in the Rest to access knowledge and capital, including returning diaspora, business schools and management consultancies. Smarter state capitalism was also a greater source of international competitive advantage than the state intervention often seen in the past.

    Keywords: Wealth and Poverty; globalization; business history; institutional change; political economy; emerging economies; developing countries; industrial development; culture; human capital; Economic History; History; Wealth and Poverty; Business History; Emerging Markets; Globalization; Developing Countries and Economies; Manufacturing Industry; Mining Industry; Service Industry; Latin America; Asia; North and Central America; Africa; South America; Europe;

    Citation:

    Jones, G. "Entrepreneurs, Firms and Global Wealth since 1850 ." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-076, March 2013.
  6. Greylock Partners

    Keywords: Business Organization; Venture Capital; Partners and Partnerships; Business History; Entrepreneurship; Financial Services Industry; New England;

    Citation:

    Hardymon, Felda, Tom Nicholas, and David Lane. "Greylock Partners." Harvard Business School Case 813-002, January 2013. (Revised April 2013.)
  7. Entrepreneurship in the Natural Food and Beauty Categories Before 2000: Global Visions and Local Expressions

    This working paper examines the creation of the global natural food and beauty categories before 2000. This is shown to have been a lengthy process of new category creation involving the exercise of entrepreneurial imagination. Pioneering entrepreneurs faced little consumer demand for natural products, and little consumer knowledge of what they entailed. The creation of new categories involved three overlapping waves of entrepreneurship. The first involved making the ideological case for natural products. This often entailed investment in education and publishing activities. Second, entrepreneurs engaged in the creation of industry associations which could advocate, as well as give the nascent industry credibility and create standards. Finally, entrepreneurs established retail stores, supply and distribution networks, and created brands. Entrepreneurial cognition and motivation frequently lay in individual, and very local, experiences, but many of the key pioneers were also highly globalized in their world views, with strong perception of how small, local efforts related to much bigger and global pictures. A significant sub-set of the influential historical figures were articulate in expressing strong religious convictions. The paper concludes that by the 1990s it was evident that the success of entrepreneurial pioneers in building the market for green products created a new set of issues, especially related to the legitimacy of their businesses and of the concept of greenness.

    Keywords: globalization; marketing; Beauty and Cosmetics Industry; business history; consumer goods; entrepreneurs; environment; food; Food; Globalization; Business History; Agribusiness; Agriculture and Agribusiness Industry; Beauty and Cosmetics Industry; Consumer Products Industry; Food and Beverage Industry; Asia; Europe; Latin America; Middle East; North and Central America;

    Citation:

    Jones, Geoffrey. "Entrepreneurship in the Natural Food and Beauty Categories Before 2000: Global Visions and Local Expressions." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-024, August 2012.
  8. Marc Rich and Global Commodity Trading

    Examines the career of Marc Rich, the world's leading commodity trader before his criminal indictment in the United States in 1983. The case surveys the historical growth of commodity trading, especially in metals, from the late nineteenth century, and its evolving forms as governments intervened in markets after 1945. Rich joined Philipp Brothers, then the largest commodity trader, in 1954. He formed his own firm two decades later. He was instrumental in the creation of a spot market in petroleum, and assumed a pivotal role in the industry during the 1970s by selling Iranian oil to Israel and South Africa. The case provides a means to explore the rationale and advantages of giant commodity traders, as well as enabling students to debate corporate use of tax havens.

    Keywords: business history; commodity market; natural resources; Metals and Minerals; Business History; Entrepreneurship; Service Industry; Mining Industry; Africa; Europe; Middle East; North and Central America; Israel; South Africa; Iran;

    Citation:

    Jones, Geoffrey, and Espen Storli. "Marc Rich and Global Commodity Trading." Harvard Business School Case 813-020, June 2012. (Revised March 2014.)
  9. Banks as Multinationals

    This is a revised edition of a comparative, international study which looks at the history of multinational banks. Researchers from the United States, Japan, Europe, and Australia survey the evolution of multinational banks over time and suggest a conceptual framework in which this development can be understood. In-depth analyses of the multinational banking strategies of selected countries and institutions extend from the early nineteenth century to the present day. The approach is interdisciplinary, with economists and business historians joining together to confront theory with empirical evidence.

    Keywords: Business History; Multinational Firms and Management; Banks and Banking; Business Strategy; Geographic Location; Trends; Theory;

    Citation:

    Jones, G., ed. Banks as Multinationals. New York: Routledge, 2012.
  10. 'Power from Sunshine': A Business History of Solar Energy

    This working paper provides a longitudinal perspective on the business history of solar energy between the nineteenth century and the present day. It covers early attempts to develop solar energy, the use of passive solar in architecture before World War 2, and the subsequent growth of the modern photovoltaic industry. It explores the role of entrepreneurial actors, sometimes motivated by broad social and environmental agendas, whose strategies to build viable business models proved crucially dependent on two exogenous factors: the prices of alternative conventional fuels and public policy. Supportive public policies in various geographies facilitated the commercialization of photovoltaic technologies, but they also encouraged rent-seeking and inefficiencies, while policy shifts resulted in a regular boom and bust cycle. The perceived long-term potential of solar energy, combined with the capital-intensity and cyclical nature of the industry, led to large electronics, oil and engineering companies buying entrepreneurial firms in successive generations. These firms became important drivers of innovation and scale, but they also found solar to be an industry in which achieving a viable business model proved a chimera, whilst waves of creative destruction became the norm.

    Keywords: Renewable Energy; Business History; Policy; Entrepreneurship; Innovation and Invention; Business Model; Energy Industry;

    Citation:

    Jones, Geoffrey, and Loubna Bouamane. "'Power from Sunshine': A Business History of Solar Energy." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 12-105, May 2012.
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