Business biographies

I was invited to speak at the Bangalore Business Literature Festival 3.0 (http://bangalorebizlitfest.org) yesterday. I prepared some notes, but true to my style, spoke mostly impromptu. It was a great opportunity to meet with writers I read regularly, as well as a lot of aspiring writers. No, I am not a prolific business writer, in fact, I have not written a single business biography yet. I wondered why I was drafted in as a speaker in the session on business biographies and management education. The moderator of my panel, my colleague Prof. Ramya Ranganathan clarified – I was in because I write cases and use firm biographies in my teaching and consulting. So, I thought I would begin by distinguishing between biographies of firms and biographies of individuals. Consequently, it is important to clarify these three words – biography, history, and a case.

Biographies of people and firms

In a panel before mine, a question was asked (to which the panelists had no answer, and it was part of my preparation!): in writing a biography, how do we separate the founder from the firm (especially in the case of a startup)? As a significant part of my classroom conversations, I separate the two explicitly. When you write and analyse a set of events in the form of a chronology, it is very difficult to separate the person from the firm. If you want to chronicle a firm biography, it is important to slice the narrative across specific decisions. Say a diversification decision could be narrated as a specific chapter bringing in the environmental context, how it was perceived by the leaders, how and what strategic change was initated, what were the implications of the change on the internal and external contexts, and if and when it achieved its intended purpose.

This way, writers can separate a firm biography from an individual biography, and highlight the idea that firms outlive (and outperform) people. As a strategy teacher, it is important for me and my class to focus on the firm independent of the strategist. And this distinction is critical to learning and application.

Biography, History, and Case

As a case writer (I want to believe that I have been prolific), I am continuously confronted with this distinction. And when I teach/ mentor colleagues on writing cases, I make sure I tell them that they are not writing a biography or history! So, it important to articulate the differences.

The purpose of a historical narrative is to recreate the context in the minds of the reader and inspire. Some exaggeration is acceptable; some glorification of the protagonist is expected; and therefore, triangulation of methods and validation of data are not that critical (though good history is based on well organized and validated data). The purpose is to present the reader with a interpretive representation of the context. The example that came to my mind yesterday was that of the imagery of the Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi. The job of a historian is to recreate an image of the Rani in the minds of the reader with his narrative. Every one (in my audience) may have heard of her, and having read the narrative/ heard stories about her, the readers would form an image of her in their own minds. It is inconsequential if she was right or left-handed; if she had 12 guards of 16; or if she indeed wore a saree as depicted in the imagery. What is important is to highlight the paradoxes – a woman warrier in a society and time when no woman fought in the frontlines; a saree-clad horse-rider; a lady carrying both a baby slung on her back and a sword in her hand; and the like. Symbols of bravery and obstinence. Period.

On the other hand, a biographer is expected to carefully validate all data and record them diligently. She is expected to present all aspects of the personality – the good, the bad, and the not so expected facets; from multiple perspectives, without judgement. The biographer cannot exaggerate, should not glorify, and should present the facts as they are without any interpretation. It is for the readers to make sense and take specific learning. It could be anything; like when Prof. V Raghunathan spoke yesterday, he said he picked up the idea that a man can do more work by sleeping only four hours per day, when he read the biography of Napolean (who apparently slept for four hours on horse back). Maybe, when I read the same biography, I would pick up something else, and you something totally different. No representations here.

A case is a decision-focused narrative. The purpose of a case is to emphasize how learning about a context can help students and learners from applying it other contexts. My colleague Prof. Rakesh Godhwani narrated a story yesterday. It was about the great imposter, Dr. Joe (made famous by the movie of the name: Catch me if you can), on how as MBAs we need to “fake it till we make it”. A member of the audience wanted to know the ending – did he get rewarded for saving lives, or did he go to jail for impersonation? As a case writer and management teacher, I would say, the ending does not matter. What matters was the criteria to make the decision, not the actual decision. Therefore, good cases do not need to be neat and complete. Then are non-comprehensive accounts of events and antecedents leading to a decision.

Therefore, the historian would create an imagery of the Rani of Jhansi, the biographer would focus on her valor, while the case writer would discuss the context of why she was at all required to fight (in the context of British India’s Doctrine of Lapse).

Celebrating the also-rans

I called the audience to write about firms that were also-rans. Success has many fathers; and these days, even failures have enough parents. In fact, I was proud of the fact one of my first cases as an academic was about India’s first ecommerce firm (way back in the year 1999), Fabmart.com; and in one of the panels yesterday the co-founder of Fabmart.com, Mr. K Vaitheeswaran was speaking about how the firm failed subsequently and his coping with that failure (read about his book, Failing to Succeed, here).

However, there is little focus on the also-ran firms. Since a majority of our students are also-rans who make their careers in also-ran firms, it is important to study them. It is important to study how these firms perceive the environment, adapt/ adopt, make strategic shifts, learn/ unlearn, pivot, take feedback, measure impact and performance, and go round and round in circles! Developing, what we strategy researchers call, dynamic capabilities. These bios are extremely valuable for the management researcher.

So, the next time you hear about a firm that is neither a success or a failure, remember that there is a lot to learn in terms of processes, routines, and dynamic capabilities from them.

Cheers.

(c) 2017. R Srinivasan.

PS: Edited Prof. Rakesh Godhwani’s coordinates and the name of the movie he referred to (Catch me if you can) on 11 Sep 2017.

Changed the featured image: 21 Sep 2017.