Creating Emerging Markets Project, with Geoffrey Jones

Geoffrey Jones

Geoffrey Jones

At a recent event in Kolkata I had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor Geoffrey Jones, Isidor Straus Professor of Business History at Harvard Business School, where we discussed his ongoing efforts to bring a greater focus in Business History to the study of emerging markets. As part of his trip to Kolkata he spent time interviewing leaders in both business and social enterprises. This is part of an extraordinary initiative at the Harvard Business School, to create a resource for researchers and educators to improve understanding of the evolution of business leadership in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He discussed the aims of the Creating Emerging Markets Project and how it can be used by business historians.

What are the aims of the project?

The Creating Emerging Markets project is based around extensive interviews by Harvard Business School faculty with impactful business leaders active in twenty one countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America over the last four decades. It is now Harvard Business School’s largest research project. Beginning in 2008 with a pilot in Argentina and Chile, it has been conceived as a public goods project with the interviews and many supporting materials held on a website and fully accessible to researchers, educators and others. The rationale behind the project is that in many emerging markets archival materials on business over the last four decades are hard to find and even harder to access. The aim is to generate a large amount of accessible primary material which will enable research and teaching on emerging markets to flourish. Ideally it will also serve to encourage businesses in emerging markets to take more interest in preserving their own historical materials, and encourage scholars and others in the regions to undertake their own oral history and other historical projects.

In the big picture, it is hoped that the project can play a part in challenging the existing focus on the developed world in the business history literature. In 2018 the world’s twenty largest economies in terms of nominal GDP included eight emerging markets, including China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and Turkey. If business history is to remain relevant, it needs to transition from being heavily focussed on North America, Europe and Japan to fully incorporate the historical experiences of Africa, Asia and Latin America. There regions had different contexts – including long eras of foreign domination, extensive state intervention, acute institutional inefficiencies, and extended turbulence – which encouraged different responses from businesses. This demands a different set of research questions than those asked for Western countries.

What kind of sources have been created?

At the core of the project are over 120 oral history interviews, and this increases by twenty or more each year. The database is the largest collection of in-depth, academic interviews with business leaders in emerging markets that currently exists. Interviewees are all either current or former leaders of their respective businesses, and interviews were conducted by Harvard faculty members. The project relies on country and regional specialists to identify the most impactful leaders in each geography. While many have headed large diversified business groups, it increasingly includes leaders of NGOs, social enterprises, and impactful figures in creative arts. Currently only 20 per cent of the interviewees are female, a ratio which reflects the low number of female business leaders in Latin America in particular, but the project is now focussed on achieving a 50/50 gender balance going forward.

The project targets individuals with between three and four decades of experience, meaning that most individuals are at least 60 years of age at the time of their interviews (and frequently older). This selection criteria was chosen because the project wanted to ensure that interviewees would be able to reflect on changes and developments that took place over the long-term. It was assumed that older individuals would also have some distance from present-day company operations, encouraging more open discussion. There is no standard set of questions, as the interviews are designed as frank and in-depth conversations over two to three hours, but most cover a number of common issues, including family dynamics and succession, business-government relations, and the social and ethical responsibility of business to society. The written transcripts of interviews, both in original languages and English translation, are downloadable on the completion of a short online form. The full videos of interviews are currently behind a firewall, but hundreds of short clips are fully accessible and downloadable, organized around themes including corruption, innovation, and women leaders.

How are the resources being used?

There are two primary uses of the materials created by the project. The first is research. The interviews contain rich and nuanced insights on the development of business in emerging markets which can be used, uniquely, as a basis for comparative research between regions. The site currently receives on average 2,000 unique site visits a month from around the world, and some 2,000 transcripts have been downloaded. In April 2018 alone there were 150 transcript downloads. In order to demonstrate that leading scholarly journals in both business and economic history and management studies accept the interview database as a legitimate primary source, Harvard Business School faculty have published using the materials. In 2016 I co-authored an article in Enterprise & Society on the growth of the eco-tourism industry in Costa Rica which is largely based on project interviews. I have also co-authored article forthcoming later in 2018 in the Australian Economic History Review on political risk and business which compares South Asia and Latin America. Turning to management studies, my colleague Tarun Khanna and I (and two co-authors) employed the interviews for an article entitled “Overcoming Institutional Voids: A Reputation-based view of Long-Run Survival,” which was published in Strategic Management Journal in 2017. We argue that firm reputation is a key strategic driver in emerging markets, and propose new ideas about the ways through which reputation facilitates long-run survival. The common criticisms and limitations of oral history, and issues such as selection bias are well-understood. In the above articles coding and other methodologies are used: there is no simplistic and uncritical use of the interview materials.

 The second major use of the project materials is educational. Since making the video clips searchable and downloadable, the short video clips have been employed in classrooms in India, Latin America and the United States. They offer vivid insights into how businesses are built, challenges such as corruption encountered, how family succession was handled, and much more. Many of the educational materials used in the classrooms of emerging markets are based on American and European experience, so are largely irrelevant to the real world of business in these regions. The material generated by the project is a useful corrective, which among other things enables students in one region to encounter the experience of leaders from other regions. The project is now moving forward by creating Harvard Business School cases composed entirely of video materials from this project, accompanied with formal teaching notes how to use such material in the classroom. Academic pedagogy needs to embrace the digital age, and hopefully Creating Emerging Markets can be part of this story.

Edited by

Michael Aldous
Published 2018-06-04