Elements for a Case on Harvard

The role of business schools in the formation of business reality is today an acknowledged topic in the social-scientific exploration of the cultural elements of entrepreneurial capitalism (see, for example, the work of Rakesh Khurana, in particular his book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands). It’s also part of our project’s agenda. One particularly relevant fieldwork site is of course the Harvard Business School. Part of my current research activities include fleshing out a few directions that were already exposed in “A flank movement in the understanding of valuation”.

Among the treasures of the Baker Library are a few collections with materials from faculty members from the early days (the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s): people that played a pivotal role in the development of both the case method (a very experiential method for the formation of the business mind, quite performative in a theatrical sense of the word) and the crafts of financial valuation (a critical set of capitalization techniques, with potentially performative effects in the repertoires of valuation in business conduct). My preference goes to Arthur Stone Dewing, professor of finance at Harvard, author of widely-read manuals, philosopher and fervent advocate of case-based business education. The papers of Cecil E. Fraser, which I had the chance to examine in April 2012, contain very interesting materials on the methods, sources and ideas of Fraser himself but also on other faculty members, Dewing in particular. Analysis of these, in combination with more contemporary sources, should translate shortly into something readable.

Entrepreneurial Formulas: Business Plans and the Formation of New Ventures

How are new business beings born?  A paper by Liliana Doganova, member of the PERFORMABUSINESS team, and Martin Giraudeau, lecturer in accounting at the London School of Economics, proposes to study the populating of markets by looking at the very place where new firms are formulated and formed: the business plan. Research on business planning has tended to focus on consequences, with conclusions indicating that while business plans certainly help entrepreneurs learn and gain legitimacy in the eyes of external parties, they have little impact on the performance of the future firm. Our paper, instead, chooses to open the plans, to analyze their contents and to describe their uses. This method allows us to observe directly what they do, both in terms of visual formulation of the new venture and of its actual formation as a new business active on its markets.

In January, we presented a first draft of this paper, entitled “Entrepreneurial formulas: business plans and the formation of new ventures”, at a seminar at Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation. The paper identified different techniques through which the future firm is put together in a business plan, and proposed to call them “formulas”. The business plan, we suggested, acts as a literary, chemical, financial and magical formula as well: it tells a story, made up of a limited set of characters and plots; it lists and bonds the resources that constitute the future firm; it transforms them into a stream of future revenues; and, in doing so, it helps bring into existence that which it describes.

The discussion of the paper raised interesting questions and opened new research paths. Isn’t it misleading, some colleagues asked, to envisage the business plan as a magic formula? How to describe the business plan – a peculiar object which is made to make do, which is addressed to a valuating agency (the investor), which is both inventively playful and rigidly standardized? What is the singularity of the business plan, as compared with, say, a project proposal, a scientific article, or an annual report? And, finally, if the business plan is a site to observe new business beings in the making, what does it tell us about the theory of the firm? We are currently incorporating these comments — new version of the paper will be made available sometime soon.

Chile as a Laboratory for Performativity Studies

Chile can be considered as one of the main laboratories of neoliberalism. Many colleagues have developed an interest in this, scrutinizing the social and economic impacts, the political system or the conditions of violence established by the “Chicago Boys” (see for instance the many blog posts at Estudios de la Economía about these issues, for example here). This is also part of PERFORMABUSINESS’s agenda.

As part of the PERFOMABUSINESS team, I initiated fieldwork in Chile in three different areas. The first, in collaboration with the ICSO at the Universidad Diego Portales, is a study of the networks of the Chilean inter-organizational business groups. We examine the dynamics and the evolution of these groups both at the level of the organizations and at an individual level. The second empirical site concerns the consulting firm Tironi Asociados. This company is at the heart of the renewal of thinking on post-dictatorial entrepreneurship. It is therefore an interesting place to explore how the culture of business builds and deploys in the Chilean context. Finally, I study business schools, especially at the Adolfo Ibañez and Diego Portales universities. My focus is on the way economic knowledge is taught, disseminated to and received by different student populations. A first part of the fieldwork was conducted in 2012, a second one is in preparation for 2013. I am using an approach which pays particular attention to the performative work carried out by actors. The objective of this research is to feed reflection on what has Chile been turned into and what it is becoming.