Let's make a deal circa 2000 BCE

Let's make a deal circa 2000 BCE McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 8, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 12
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > March 8, 2001 > Let's make a deal circa 2000 BCE

Let's make a deal circa 2000 BCE

It all started with washing the dishes.

Photo Management professor Karl Moore
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Karl Moore was a graduate student at York University, sharing digs with another graduate student, David Lewis, who was doing his PhD at the history department at University of Toronto. Moore was a management scholar, but he always had a soft spot for historical topics.

"I washed. He dried," recalls Moore. "He had the easier job, so he had to talk to me about history."

Today, Moore is a visiting professor of management at McGill, an associate fellow at Oxford University's Templeton College, and a specialist in business strategy. Lewis is a historian interested in European unification.

The dishwashing conversations planted a seed for a unique collaboration between the duo which has yielded a trio of books that examine the historical origins of business concepts and structures that are commonplace today.

Moore began thinking of writing the books when he realized there was a pronounced gap in management literature; there was precious little written about business in the ancient world. He corralled his old roommate and made full use of the resources he had at Oxford, home to "the best classics department in the world."

Oxford's renowned classicists offered their feedback as chapters were penned.

A business student who believes that anything predating Microsoft is prehistoric, might be startled to learn that an Assyrian named Pusu-ken largely invented the multinational some 2,000 years before Jesus came along.

Or that Pasion, a freed slave living in Athens over 300 years before Jesus was born, established a blueprint for profitable international banking transactions.

Moore is quick to acknowledge that there is a world of difference between business dealings centuries ago and those of today. "There was no IBM in the sands of Assyria." Still, he thinks there are valuable lessons to be learned by diving into the past.

The Assyrians, for instance, were unlikely candidates to become world players.

"With few natural resources, no outlet to the sea, a lack of defensible borders and a series of powerful, hostile neighbours, Assyria lived in constant danger of impoverishment," write Moore and Lewis in their latest book, Foundations of Corporate Empire.

But the Assyrians were willing to travel and take chances. They curried favour with powerful players in different regions and gained access to a wide variety of goods. They stitched together well-organized trading networks. They could probably teach Nortel a thing or two.

Among the creations of the Roman Empire, say Moore and Lewis, were the free market, large private firms, the issuing of shares, limited liability, mass production and a common European currency.

While the fall of the Romans is a complex tale, Moore and Lewis note some factors, such as crushing taxes and widescale corruption, that might merit attention from business scholars.

Muhammad is one of history's most prominent religious leaders and, it turns out, a prophet who understood profit. He was a savvy businessman whose success proved that ethics and profits aren't mutually exclusive, write Moore and Lewis.

When Muhammad organized the first Muslim society in Medina in 622, the city's constitution encouraged free enterprise "mitigated by a social welfare system and prohibitions upon usury, cornering of markets and other monopolistic practices."

Anyone who thinks that Microsoft engages in cutthroat tactics with adversaries today might pause at the example of ancient Phoenicia. The Phoenicians developed a process of using Mediterranean shellfish to make purple dye, a process that fuelled their garment industry's widespread success.

"This secret process was kept as solely tacit knowledge and passed down from generation to generation. Revealing this process to outsiders was invariably punished by death," the authors write.

In thumbing through the past, Moore and Lewis note that ancient empires and contemporary multinationals alike, often come to unpleasant ends when they get too cocky and lose the ability to change with the times.

Moore says one benefit of being well-versed in history is that one is less myopic looking at the world of business.

"One of the questions you hear today is: 'Should the world become American?' Should we all just adopt the American style of doing business wholesale?" since the U.S. is clearly the world's business juggernaut.

In a recent paper he co-authored with Lewis that uses examples from the ancient world, Moore offers an emphatic "no" to the question. Assyria, Greece and Rome all created unique approaches to doing business that worked to their respective benefits.

"In the '80s, we all wanted to be Japanese," offers Moore. While everyone can learn from the Americans' successes, "no one size fits all." Culture, history and social institutions play a determining role in establishing a business system.

Moore has his own thoughts on who the next economic world player might be. Would you believe ... Finland?

Moore has consulted for Nokia, the Finnish-based high-tech firm that has become an international success story. He says the Finns and other Nordic cultures have some valuable lessons to offer.

"They look for a diverse source of ideas for their business dealings," Moore says. "They're very open to other cultures, and they're very willing to change course once they see they've made a mistake." In a high-paced, globalized world, those are winning character traits.

Apart from business history, Moore spends a lot of his time on his other specialty, knowledge management.

He has studied the practices of some of the world's biggest consulting firms and found problems that might plague them down the road.

"Knowledge that's created in foreign subsidiaries is often overlooked," says Moore, citing a troubling attitude among many of the firms he has studied. "If it wasn't developed [at the home office], it isn't worthwhile."

Part of the problem is language. Although subsidiaries of a U.S. firm in France and Germany will include managers who can communicate in English, the reports filed in those countries that contain insights culled from their own activities might not be decipherable in offices located in other parts of the world. Having a crack squad of in-house translators might be a valuable investment.

"Global consulting firms are under a lot of pressure to bill hours," says Moore. The priority, then, is to get new contracts, not to write down the lessons you've learned from your last contract.

"I think in a situation like that, you need a reward system that recognizes the value of chronicling what you've discovered and sharing that information."

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