Rethinking Business History in the Classroom

General Motors

General Motors

GM's shrinking share

On being asked to coordinate the teaching resources of the Business History Conference website I wanted to find ways to proactively support the Business History Conference’s agenda of encouraging the use of Business History in teaching. In particular, to promote the excellent Teaching resources, whilst providing context, particularly for those not immersed in Business History, and offering insights and inspiration regarding their use.

In considering my own experiences in developing teaching resources I realised how lucky I was to have a group of colleagues who shared these interests, which led to interesting discussions on content, pedagogy and methodology. To this end I would like to invite members of the BHC community to contribute short pieces that discuss the many and varied ways in which business history are being used across disciplines in classrooms, and through these entries foster a wider discussion on these opportunities.

To kick off the series I thought about my own experiences in using the BHC’s teaching resources. The first time I encountered the syllabi was when I put together a module outline for a job interview. When looking through them I was struck by the sheer range of topics, fields and disciplines touched on. I started searching for, what I imagined, would be a generic ‘Business History’ module – something along the lines of the emergence and evolution of Big Business in the 19th and 20th centuries centred on debates around Chandler – but was rapidly waylaid and intrigued by modules on consumerism, finance, globalization, and technology. Courses track the cultural, sociological, political and economic effects of business in a multitude of global regions and periods, similarly big debates on financial crises, industrialization and the nature of capitalism are explored.  

Of course, this should have been no surprise. Business History is inherently multidisciplinary; the study of business underpinned by historical methods and approaches, but with feet in many fields, due to the embedded nature of business in society. Management, finance, accounting, economics, sociology, law, and political science, all have more than a passing interest in the historical development of firms, industries, and entrepreneurs. Each of these disciplines, in turn, has offered theoretical lenses and methodological treatments, many of which have been incorporated into historical studies of business.

My sense is that the appreciation of this cross-pollination, or ‘historical turn’, is most widely discussed and utilised in research, but there is also an increasing interest in exploring the benefits for teaching. It was these debates on multidisciplinary approaches to methodology that inspired my own efforts to use these resources in my teaching at Management Schools. Although I mainly teach modules related to strategy and international business I was interested in finding ways to link the contrasting methodologies of history and those of the social-sciences to improve learning outcomes for my undergraduate and graduate students.

I try to integrate a ‘historical turn’ in my otherwise social science dominated courses, through applying more rigorous historical methods to question the value of data and sources, and promote an increased interest in studying phenomena in the ‘long-run’ to better specify causality. One way I do this is through a long-run study of General Motors, using Chandler’s account of the firm to consider the revolutionary managerial and organizational innovations that made it so successful in the early 20th century, and then challenge MBA students to use different organizational theories (such as the Resource Based View of the firm) to explain the evolution of the firm and its eventual bankruptcy in 2009. This produces interesting discussions on the growth of firms in the long-run, in light of path-dependent choices and other temporal effects such as institutional change, that help participants go beyond the media narrative and challenge some theoretical assumptions.

As the syllabi and teaching resources show, historical content and analysis, alongside increasingly innovative methodological approaches, can inform understanding of the operations and performance of entrepreneurs, firms and industries, and the subsequent impact on economies and societies. I certainly feel there is a great opportunity to further promote Business History as a field that offers innovative paths to understanding significant contemporary debates to students and instructors throughout the academy and beyond!

If you would like to contribute to the discussion please contact me (Michael Aldous, Lecturer in Management at Queens University Belfast) at and I am happy to discuss different ways we might get your ideas out.

Edited by

Michael Aldous
Published 2016-09-19