Part 2: Negotiation and the uses of history in business

In Part 1 I talked about the importance of ‘placement’ for negotiation, of locating the other party within national and organisational cultural contexts as a way of understanding the likely approach to decision-making.  This involves asking historical questions that allow us to assemble synchronic and diachronic narratives to help develop that understanding.

This task is, or should be, complemented by an investment in understanding our own interests and positions.  It is easy in a negotiation to become preoccupied with the other party, to focus our attention on their background, motivations, tactics and goals, and thereby to neglect the task of reflecting on our own.

Again, I think there is an alignment with history.  As old disciplinary certainties have broken down over the last 40 years or so, a new plurality of perspectives and self-consciousness in practice have emerged.  It is now expected that historians are clear about their claims, methods and commitments and such a task involves a level of engagement with the implications of these for the analyses and accounts that result.  In a sense, historians go through a process of negotiation between self and sources – rather than a uni-directional interrogation.  We no longer ‘hard-bargain’ with our (remote) subjects to extract maximum value, rather recognise that we are ourselves also involved and hence the relationship matters.

For me, there are some potential problems.  Pluralisation is often connected to specialisation and fragmentation, a trend that has perhaps made history turn inwards, less engaged with or concerned about how it relates to, informs or participates in broader public debates and democratic processes.  A greater self-consciousness is surely an asset, but not if it drives us to a level of introspection that shuts down rather than opens up opportunities for reinvigorating and reconceptualising what history is and what historians can do.

Maybe that’s as far as the analogy between negotiation and history can go.  But analogising is probably a good habit to get into.  When reading and thinking about a topic/theme/argument, should we routinely ask: what does this mean for history?  What could history mean for this?  And how can we creatively negotiate between the two?

Negotiation and the uses of history in business

Doing the pre-reading for a course in negotiation for university staff at UCLA while sitting in the Profeta coffee house on Glendon Avenue (much recommended), I came across another intersection between ‘history’ and ‘policy’: negotiation.

In Thinking in time: the uses of history for decision-makers, Neustadt and May offer a set of ‘mini-methods’ for thinking with history when faced with a ‘decision situation’.  By looking for the story behind an issue (rather than just focusing on the ‘problem’), revisiting key presumptions and carefully inspecting analogies, the historian offer the decision-maker important insights.  At the heart of their thinking lies the idea of placement: that by locating and understanding the other party, both diachronically and synchronically, you can start to anticipate likely attitudes and hence likely actions and reactions.  The other party may be an individual, such as the leader of another country, or an organisation or group; either way, you need some knowledge of the history, the culture and the practices to make any kind of informed judgement about a course of action involving it.

In discussing Intercultural negotiations in International Business, Salacuse makes very a very similar case.  In any such situation, “it is important to know how the other side is organized, who has the authority to make commitments, and how decisions are made,” with (national) culture a key factor.  Though not a concern of the author, he does imply that history shapes the cultural values which themselves shape approaches and attitudes to negotiation in business.  Hence, for Salacuse, the political traditions in Brazil, China and Mexico may be reflected in a preference for ‘one-person leadership’ over ‘group consensus’, and a knowledge of Thai histories should prove valuable to an American tasked with forming a strategic alliance with a company in Bangkok.

Neustadt and May’s case studies involve national and international policy.  Armed conflict is a potential outcome of many of the decision situations and the parties involved come into only infrequent, high-stakes contact.  Salacuse’s parties, by contrast, face only failure to secure business deals and are by mutual consent involved in a dialogue.  Though the contexts in which authors’ methods might be put to use are very different (as are the risks and outcomes) an interesting affinity in terms of the importance of placement can be brought to the surface.

It’s difficult to gain the understanding of a national culture, or indeed an organisational culture – without asking historical questions about the underlying stories.   Understanding the individuals involved, their location within the organisation and the context for the specific negotiation likewise call for historical perspective.  Salacuse discusses the need to develop knowledge of culture and knowledge of the individual under two separate rules.  Perhaps a more explicitly historical approach would allow these to be integrated into a single rule for successful business negotiation: always invest time up front in ‘placing’ the other party, that is, in understanding its contexts.  One of the strengths of history as a discipline is that it can work with multiple levels of human identity, action and meaning.  It can locate the individual within different groupings, and those groupings within larger collectivities.

There have been some attempts, particularly in the US, to make the case for the importance of history to and in business (for example Jones and Khanna, 2006), but the potential seems to be largely unrealised in the UK.  A historical approach to business negotiation is just one option.  There’s also scope for historians to be active in their local business communities, and for businesses to be demanding their services.  For example, how about working alongside Business School colleagues to advise companies on making effective use of records in strategy and planning, or to conduct and analyse oral history programmes to preserve institutional memory and put it to work for the future?

For me, this is an important other dimension to the role of universities in local economic development, a view I shared at a recent Association of Business Schools policy forum on the challenge of economic regeneration.  In the sector, we often talk about the ‘corporate’ dimension – the contribution universities make as large employers, with their procurement budgets and through staff and student spending.  Higher education is a major export market, worth £7.9bn 2009, and a draw for inward investment.  But in doing so, do we miss or underplay the academic dimension?  Can the disciplines, with their distinct yet often complementary forms of knowledge and methods, have real social and economic impact at local level?