A business history, like a profound play, has many strands, and when one is identified many more remain to be disentangled. This week, John draws parallels between analysing business history and the thoughts of the philosopher Jacques Derrida.
“No one in the lunch room has ever heard of him. I can look him up on Google if you like.” When The Guardian newspaper sought tributes to Jacques Derrida, who died last month, that was the best the City of London could do. But Jacques Chirac, the French president, described him as “one of the major figures in the intellectual life of our time”, itself enough to create apoplexy at The Wall Street Journal. Derrida’s thought, the Journal said, “deserves unstinting criticism from anyone who cares about the moral fabric of intellectual life”.
Derrida’s most famous idea was deconstruction; his mantra “there is nothing but the text”. As a child actor, I once played the messenger in Waiting for Godot. Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece is not easy for anyone to understand, and not at all easy if you are 10 years old. I formed a plan to write to Beckett, explaining my predicament and asking him to tell me what the play was about. But Google had yet to be invented, and I never managed to find the playwright’s address.
I now know Beckett was in Paris, perhaps consorting with Derrida in some Left Bank café. Jacques would have told the author how to reply. Reread the play of course: “There is nothing but the text.” A play is not a textbook. The purpose of reading a video recorder manual is to deduce the intentions of the writer, and we judge the manual by how easy it is to interpret those intentions. If you lose the manual, you can, with sufficient skill and effort, reproduce its content. A video recorder is a material device with specific and unchanging functions.
But a play has no simple relationship between intention and function. If Shakespeare had wanted to warn of the perils of ambition, he could have used “AutoContent Wizard” to prepare a Powerpoint presentation, rather than engage in writing Richard III. The play he did write has many levels of meaning and can sustain many interpretations. What you learn from it is personal. The child prodigy Jedediah Buxton, asked what he thought of Richard III, observed (correctly) that the play contained 12,445 words. He had seen the same play as everyone else, yet a different one. Shakespeare no doubt thought of Richard III in terms of his royalties. All these perspectives are valid, none complete, and none, not even Shakespeare’s, uniquely privileged.
But we think of businesses as if they were static machines like video recorders, rather than as evolving, complex entities, like plays. I have often described some episode in business history, only to be told by a member of the audience: “I was there, and this is how it really was.” But insiders have no special insight into how it really was: only one, necessarily limited and prejudiced, perspective. Business journalists believe they learn the truth about a company by interrogating its chief executive – making the same childish mistake as I did in seeking advice from Samuel Beckett. And with less justification: Beckett wrote every word of Waiting for Godot, but no CEO can ever aspire to that degree of control over his organisation.
The cynical old European claim that there is no ultimate truth about human affairs explains the ire of The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial pages proclaim that truth every day. But there is no one true story, only more and less useful interpretations. Enron’s financial statements may have been, in some literal sense, true, but its accounts were intended to mislead. Parmalat’s are now under scrutiny. We will understand these companies better still by gaining understanding of the psychology of greed and the anthropology of small Italian towns.
A business history, like a profound play, has many strands, and when one is identified many more remain to be disentangled. In next week’s column, I will illustrate this with the most famous of business case studies – Honda’s success in the US motor cycle market. When Harvard MBA students discuss case studies, they are told there is no right answer to the questions they will debate. I doubt they realise they are engaged in deconstruction. But, class, I like to think that Derrida would have approved.
Everlasting Light Bulbs, a collection of John Kay’s columns, has just been published by The Erasmus Press