Radical business

For those not socialised into its norms and traditions, Oxford’s exam season can make for a somewhat bewildering spectacle. As it was for me when I arrived in the city last Thursday to find the practice of ‘trashing’ in full swing outside my hotel. Looking on with bemusement, I was told that it had historically involved the barraging of gown-clad undergraduates with eggs, flower, and even fish entrails as they left their last exams. Though officially now banned by the University, a more sanitised version is still widely practiced today, with shaving foam, confetti and other mostly harmless ordnance the worst one can expect. Standing there, it occurred to me that the modernised persistence of this nineteen-century tradition had more than a passing relevance to the symposium I had come to attend. However, I was already pushing my luck and, not wanting to become collateral, I manoeuvred around some particularly dramatic casualties and retreated into my hotel.

The next morning, the students had gone, and I headed to the Bodleian’s Weston Library in glorious midsummer conditions to register for the Radical Business Symposium. Generously funded by RBC Foundation and the Bodleian’s Centre for the Study of the Book, the Symposium’s agenda set out a day focused on the contestation and evolution of social norms over time, particularly in the context of businesses and their relationship to wider society. As the organiser, David Smith, noted to me afterwards “the event featured different disciplines exploring how business and culture change each other — often in surprising ways. During a time when business is increasingly expected to lead or respond to cultural issues, this area of research is especially timely.”

The first session, embedding and transforming social norms, was kicked off by Heidi Tworek, who discussed the role German news agencies played distributing political rhetoric throughout their international networks. Focusing particularly on Alfred Hugenberg’s Telegraph Union, it was fascinating to hear how a blend of political and commercial aims ultimately contributed the media mogul losing control of his empire, when the Nazi party he’d worked to install subsumed national media activities. Following this, David Smith gave a paper on CSR and its links to Christian ethics, highlighting the efforts of Howard Bowen in promoting levels of professional ‘best practice’ before more neoliberal agendas stripped CSR of its normative basis. The session was rounded off with a report by Pegram Harrison on the contestation of purpose faced by museums. Here, he showed how the leaders of such institutions must increasingly manage a ‘trilemma’ of cultural, commercial and community responsibilities in order to meet their brief.

Pegram Harrison

After a coffee break, the next session focused on the relationship between business and national interests, starting with a paper by Aled Davies on UK ‘invisible exports’. His work here showed how the presence of particular skills and capabilities helped promote London’s rise to global financial power, complementing the UK’s already well-established industrial presence. Following this, Neil Forbes gave an analysis of how BP’s commercial interests co-existed with the national interests of the UK, ultimately illustrating well how taxation policy does not have to conflict with business. To round off the morning, James Hollis then showed how the offshore economy owes its origins to the blockade and later reparations imposed on Germany during the First World War. Here, a network of underground commercial links between Germany and neutral nations provided an important solution to sanctions during the war itself and flags of convenience mitigated the liability of owning German registered ships in its aftermath.

James Hollis

The afternoon session on corruption and stigma was kicked off by Stephanie Decker and myself, discussing some of our work on Enron and the California energy crisis. Following this, Lola Wilhelm gave a fascinating account of Nestle’s initial efforts to create a baby food market in Africa, showing how its reputation was originally that of a progressive, post-natal medical champion, rather than the later toxic links relating to this aspect of its past. Will Pettigrew finished the session by showing how corporations of the early modern period managed issues of fraud, focusing particularly on the agency problems European businesses encountered during their overseas interests. He pointed out here that, rather than instilling the European institutions upon in the East, adaptive policy changes were driven by more commercial experience in overseas, which was disseminated back into Europe.

Changing organisational norms occupied the final session of the day, and Anne Murphy started with a paper elaborating the Bank of England’s efforts to self-reform, acting before external parties moved to bring their house in order for them. Following this, Michael Weatherburn showed the value historical consultancy represents to business and government, presenting as an example his recent work analysing social and economic forecasting. Finally, Alan Morrison provided a thought-provoking paper on the movement of investment banks from relational to technocratic trading, presenting the concept of ‘braiding’ to explain the somewhat problematic coexistence of trust-based and contract-based norms in the balancing of customers and firm interests.

Concluding the symposium, David Vines drew upon several of the day’s presentations to illustrate how the changing nature of social norms was influenced by the repeated games played by individuals during their day-to-day lives. In addition to noting how norms change expectations over time, he highlighted the inverse relationship, where expectations represent a self-fulling prophesy for normative change. Following the session papers, the symposium members retired for drinks, which concluded a most successful and thought-provoking day. For this, thanks must go to colloquium organisers for arranging such a stimulating and well managed event. 

Are you attending an event relevant to business or organisational history this summer? We’re always looking for volunteers to write reports for the network. We would particularly love to hear from anyone interested in providing content for the upcoming AoM and EBHA conferences. For further enquiries, please contact Adam Nix (adam.nix@dmu.ac.uk).

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