Business lessons from history

Nancy Koehn

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: If we've learned one thing over the past year-and-a-half, it's that there are some lessons from history we should be aware of. Economic history, specifically. Nancy Koehn is the editor of a new book called "The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times." Good to have you with us.

NANCY KOEHN:: Pleasure to be here.

Ryssdal: This is what a 300-something-page book -- 375, 400 pages -- it almost seems not enough to capture the history of American business. How do you organize a topic like that?

KOEHN: I did it on a three-part stool, Kai, and I did it just based on my historical gut that comes with having looked at this stuff for so long. And those three legs are the corporation, the large company, the changing workplace, where I really am talking about not only what people do for a living but also consumption. And the third leg is technology. But the second really important piece of this book is that I wanted a book that you didn't have to read cover to cover in order to feel good about.

Ryssdal: Well, I tell you, I don't know what this says about my attention span, but it was great to dip in and dip out of this book. And just choose these articles and read them randomly, and you come across these little nuggets. Like this article from the Times in 1940 that says, "The nation goes on a 40-hour workweek." I mean when you think about something like that and where we are today, I mean, it's an interesting concept.

KOEHN: I'm chuckling, I'm chortling because I have such pleasure in that as well, Kai. So another one is the introduction of the iPod, and this kind of quizzical tone to the reporters, as he's writing about this, like oh, this is kind of an interesting device, I wonder if this will go anywhere for Steve Jobs.

Ryssdal: The best part of that article, actually, was the part where it said the market for this device is not yet known. And you're like, oh man, are you kidding me?

KOEHN: And then there's another one about cell phones may make us rude. And this was like written, I don't know, 16 years ago. So that the wonder of the first time is replete in this book.

Ryssdal: And also the changes that we went through as a country. There's a whole swath of articles from the 1960s, and where women are coming in, and more minorities in the workplace. What was it that made you keen on that and sorta bring that up?

KOEHN: Because I think of business as much as a social institution as an economic institution. A big hunk of the book is about social issues. There's a wonderful article from the early '60s about the emerging black middle class, called the negro middle class, by the way, in the parlance of the day, in Atlanta and what a sea change that is in that city. You know, that wouldn't have been possible, again, without a variety of political but also a variety of business events. And so I wanted the book to feel like a book that really pays respect to the incredible reach of modern business.

Ryssdal: So when we look back on this period, on 2008-2009, what lessons will we have learned? Will we have learned anything do you think?

KOEHN: I think we'll have learned several things. One, that we are incredibly tightly connected. We really are a global village in a way we've never been. Second, I think we'll learn that we overlook history, and its lessons at our own peril. And I think we're going to have to learn that Adam Smith's invisible hand of self-interest is really no longer a useful descriptive of the way that market capitalism in the 21st century works. We simply cannot pursue a marketplace that is motivated and fueled by individuals pursuing their isolated self-interest.

Ryssdal: Nancy Koehn is a professor at the Harvard Business School. She's also the editor of a new book called "The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times." Nancy, thanks a lot.

KOEHN: Real pleasure.

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