Looking Toward the Future: Expanding Connections for Business Historians
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Looking Toward the Future:
Expanding Connections for Business Historians

Last year, Will Hausman gave us a splendid overview of business history’s development for his presidential address.1 Despite his modesty, he treated us to a review of the parallels between his career and the field’s progress, which owes much to his dedication to the Business History Conference (BHC) and its various constituencies. What we have within the BHC now, thanks to Will and many others, are multiple opportunities for exciting interactions based on ideas. As we share, exchange, and rearrange our ideas, they grow, as do our pleasure in and appreciation for them. The BHC offers us a wonderful arena for advancing the life of our minds—while advancing our ideas.

This year, I am going to talk about business history’s future and the future of the BHC. The organization’s health is excellent, and our historiographical range grows apace; it is a good time for looking ahead. Yet, you may protest, historians look back, not forward. Even so, we certainly know some tricks of the soothsayer’s trade, learned of necessity. Lay audiences can be politely interested in the past, but they are keenly interested in anything we can tell them about [End Page 575] the future. We have all been drawn into conversations or interviews ostensibly about the past only to be asked about the future. We may develop our skills in research, analysis, and communication so as to explain the past, but explaining the present and speculating on the future play better to most audiences.

Likewise, those among us employed in business schools know very well that students and colleagues value us to the degree we can convince them of our “relevance” to their futures. For instance, Joe Martin, Director of Canadian Business History at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, recently wrote to tell me that his course’s new title is “Using History to Make Strategic Decisions.”2 At yesterday’s lunch for historians in business schools, pressures to be recognized as relevant to present and future concerns came through loud and clear.

Wherever we hang our professional hats, we find eager audiences for predictions, especially when troubles loom. Despite all our frustrations with that popular proclivity, asking what we might imagine for ourselves presents a useful exercise. Accordingly, I will borrow patterns and models from historical work on the operations of trade associations and professional organizations. I will also follow this annual meeting’s theme, “Expanding Connections for Business History,” to contemplate business history’s potentials. The 2008 call for proposals conveyed our hope to “highlight scholarship that expands the field’s connections across disciplines and perspectives, [and] demonstrate the relevance of business history to other fields of history and other areas of scholarship.” Participants from twenty-two countries have admirably helped us to achieve our goals, including expanding “business history’s intellectual connections and reach, extending its relevance to both scholarly and public audiences.”3

Imagining Futures

Our ideas and the knowledge on which we base them deserve the best future we can build for developing, sharing, and even challenging them—all best achieved by expanding our horizons and connections. Historians’ explanations of the past can sometimes help explain the present and point to the future, although not necessarily in ways that profit futurists and forecasters.4 Even if we stick too closely to our [End Page 576] evidence to hazard predictions, we often detect causal patterns from the past that can be useful to journalists and others, possibly even policy makers. Economic historians are especially good at extrapolating from their formal models of how things work. During yesterday’s roundtable, “Connecting with the Public and Management,” The Economist’s business editor Tom Standage urged us to observe similarities between the present and the past, “analogies,” for sharing our ideas with the press, either in interviews or in other public venues, such as op-ed pieces. Thoughtful analogies can be persuasive, and they can draw attention to our work.

One reason for historians’ reluctance, when tempted to draw analogies between present conditions and the past, is our well-honed recognition of contingencies, of the...