As HBR turns 100 next month, it is interesting to read the first article that it published. Written by the Harvard Business School Dean, Wallace B Donham, he states;
The theory of business, to meet the need, must develop to such a point that the executive, who will make the necessary effort, may learn effectively from the experiences of others in the past what to avoid and how to act under the conditions of the present.
Yet goes on to state
No amount of theory can be a substitute for energy, enthusiasm, initiative, creative ability, and personality, nor will it take the place of technical knowledge. Now, however, all of these personal qualities may be coupled with an adequate technical equipment, and yet the executive of wide experience may fail through our inability to grasp the broad underlying forces controlling business, a knowledge of which would give a sound basis for judgment."
Business leaders are seen as too closed minded and unwilling or unable to learn from other industries. And they failed to learn from economists (who had also failed to make their contribution relevant to specific industries.
Donham blames a lack of standards for reaching executive decisions, with silo-ing of technical advances within companies and not shared within industries, and he goes on to compare the theoretical background for business with the state of laws in France and England some 600-700 years earlier - localised and disjointed.
The methods used in the Harvard Business School maintained this legal metaphor, with the adoption of 'case law' - discussing instances of good and poor business practice with students until they reached their own conclusions or judgements on what should or shouldn't have been done: the teachers meanwhile are withholding their opinions, and needing to have a number of solutions to discuss with students to test the strength of the theories they develop. The collation of these case studies is what became the HBR, with the aim that:
that the executive who wishes to know how different concerns have handled a particular problem perhaps at various stages of a business cycle may, as time goes on, study precedents not only in his own industry, but in other industries where similar problems occur.
If you want to travel back in time and see from whence Business Theory came, at least from the Harvard perspective, the full edition is available here.