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Purposes and Practices in Firm-level History
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Purposes and Practices in Firm-level History

I must confess at the outset that despite repeated reading and study I am not quite sure what Dan Raff is driving at in this paper. In the end, I have decided he is telling us to write good history. He is suggesting that we not simply work backward from a known outcome and assemble a coherent explanation of how the firm arrived at that point. Rather, we should put ourselves into the flow of events as they happened. We should consider the complexity and uncertainty of change as it occurred. We should identify paths considered but not taken (or maybe not considered at all), dead ends pursued, obstacles encountered and interim solutions devised, course readjustments midstream—in sum, the full array of choices made by those who attempted to steer the firm toward some destination, be it the eventual end point we observe or some other unfulfilled alternative. And of course we should keep in mind that our historical actors did not see our end point as The End; they were necessarily thinking beyond that outcome or at least were being swept onward by the course of events. In my favorite of his many aphorisms, Raff cautions us that “the reasons survivors look strong now are not necessarily the reasons they survived the crises then.” The point resonates with much of what I have to say here.

Raff’s call begs two obvious questions. First, why should we do this? What ends does such history serve? Second, how do we put this prescription into practice? These questions sound distinct but ultimately cannot be. Our aims cannot be separated from our means. This becomes clear, I think, when we turn from theory to actual examples.

Now, by his own admission, Raff’s paper is a tad thin on examples. I recall one brief allusion to General Motors (GM). I suppose I was [End Page 486] invited to participate in this forum in hopes I might provide some others. And I will try. But first, I would like to make a brief detour through some neighboring subdisciplines of history, where I think the issue of aims and means might have some parallels to business history.

One work jumped to mind when I finished Raff’s essay: James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.1 For those who may not be aware of it, this is the volume of the Oxford History of the United States devoted to the Civil War Era. It covers some of the most familiar territory in American history—particularly, in American political and military history. Yet readers from inside the academy and out have celebrated the work (and bought it and read it—perhaps even all 952 pages).

Why? First and foremost, I think, because McPherson is writing the sort of forward-looking history Dan Raff has in mind. While telling a story we all know—or, at least, of which we know the ending— McPherson gives it new power and meaning by being extraordinarily disciplined about placing his actors in the flow of events. McPherson never loses track of the fundamental truth: we know what is coming for Lincoln, but Lincoln did not. He operated in a space of concurrent flows, making choices as he went, then making subsequent decisions on the hope his previous actions would bear the intended fruit, long before he knew what those actions would actually accomplish. On occasion, Lincoln might well have concluded something was a failure and acted on that premise, although time eventually proved it a success. As such, Lincoln, like all managers, had continually to provide for contingencies. Those he could not provide for, presumably he lost sleep over or maybe prayed over.

Part of the appeal of McPherson’s approach is that it makes for good drama, an effect that is heightened, no doubt, by the weight (and familiarity) of the people and events under discussion. Just think, the reader ponders repeatedly, how different things might have been if only so-and-so had not thought to do such-and-such a thing. Yet there is more at work here than a gripping tale brimming with...