Knowledge: A Factor for Competitiveness
Giudo Corbetta was the editor-in-chief of Economia&Management form 2014 to 2017. In this interview he retraces some of the fundamental points of his term, stressing the importance of training (studying and reading) for today's managers.
Guido Corbetta was the editor-in-chief of Economia&Management from 2014 to 2017, but he also worked on the magazine as a member of the editorial board when the founder, Claudio Dematté, was at the helm. Corbetta, an academic very attentive to the world of business, by training and conviction, recalls that Dematté taught him rigor in research and passion for the growth of students and businesses, as well as a series of solid values such as respect for people, loyalty in interpersonal relationships, and the tiresome search for truth in all situations. And it was Dematté who reminded him that the primary mission of Economia&Management was to publish articles that contained ideas, models, and useful tools for those who work in and for businesses: entrepreneurs, managers, workers, professionals, consultants, labor union representatives, and policymakers.
You are considered among the founders of the areas of studies, in corporate strategy, called family business. Your name is associated with the first sponsored professorship in the history of the Bocconi (and elsewhere), dating back to 2003. And just recently, you received an international award that places you among the 100 most influential experts in this field in the world. From your privileged viewpoint, how would you define the factors of evolution in the family business sector in the past 30 years, in Italy and other countries as well?
The entire system of enterprises, in Italy and other areas of the world, has changed a great deal in this long period. The geographic horizon has been radically transformed, becoming global, at least until a few months ago. The Covid-19 pandemic could lead countries to reflect more carefully on their international relations, including in economic terms, but I believe it is impossible for the level of globalization to return to that of 30 years ago.
The impact of new technologies has radically changed many sectors. I am not referring only to communication technologies or social media. In visiting factories with the oldest type of production, such as metalworking, we clearly see the effort that has been made, thanks to technology, to make them safer and more efficient, and to avoid defects.
Above all, some of the convictions of corporate management have changed, in particular in Italian enterprises. I am thinking of the slogan "small is beautiful." The Italian industrial system, with the small dimensions of single enterprises and some networks – cooperation, districts – seemed to be a strong point for the country due to its flexibility. Unfortunately, this slogan attracted many entrepreneurs and some researchers as well. Yet this actually weakened businesses, because small dimensions do not allow for the processes of technological, knowledge and financial accumulation that by now have become essential to successfully compete in the world. With specific reference to family enterprises, it seems that in recent decades, the belief of "poor business and rich family" has also been overcome. This model, already criticized in the past by Claudio Dematté himself and by me in a study on family businesses, considered it positive when many of the financial resources of businesses came from the banking system in the form of debt. This conviction weakened the culture of equity in the country, that is now so precious to sustain significant growth in size.
If you were to devise an ideal compass for the "navigators in the world of management," what would the four cardinal points be that are essential for a fruitful relationship between university and business?
Universities are a place of production and dissemination of knowledge. The first point is that they must open their doors: the doors of universities for interested companies and the doors of companies for universities, both in terms of sharing research and of relations with students. The second important element is the need for this exchange to also take place for interested executives. Following the example of other important business schools in the world, such as Harvard, SDA Bocconi began a DBA program (Doctorate in Business Administration) a few years ago, reserved to executives who want to deepen their knowledge on research methods. It was immediately successful. The third element regards the fact that, with a common effort, universities and business must compete internationally. In the past twenty years, the Italian university system has made an important effort to update its research, training, and faculty in this regard. Businesses, and in particular large, internationalized businesses, can provide a significant contribution to accelerating and spreading this process. Then there is a final element: businesses can help universities develop the systems necessary to reach high levels of efficiency. I am convinced that an efficient system also improves the propensity to do research, dismantling the system of exploitation of privileged positions that universities can no longer afford to maintain.
To be interesting (and useful, I would add) for people who work in and for businesses, what type of knowledge needs to be produced and spread?
This is a central issue. When I was a student at the Bocconi, high-ranking academics such as Masini, Coda, Dematté, Brunetti, and Airoldi served as examples for me. For them, the first characteristic of knowledge is that it must be relevant, it must be useful to improve the short and medium-term competitiveness of businesses and other important institutions for a country. We must keep this longing alive, without which universities would not respond to one of the essential elements of their mission, that of forming youth. Secondly, frontier knowledge must be produced. Often the people who work in and for businesses are stuck on an operational level and have little time to raise their eyes to look more towards the future. I'll give you an example: for decades, businesses were concentrated on the maximization of economic value. The sharpest researchers in that period offered reflections on other typical goals of business, seeking to promote a culture of sustainability, of shared value. Today, finally, this issue has spread in the business world, but without those researchers who sowed frontier research this would not have happened, or it would have been less pervasive. This example leads me to a third element that I consider important: the production of nonconformist thinking. If all professors and managers were fixated on a culture of maximization of economic value today, businesses would be much less able to govern relations with stakeholders.
Given that you have been one of the protagonists of the history of Economia&Management, what contribution do you believe the magazine has made and can make to knowledge of corporate strategy in general, and family business in particular?
Claudio Dematté was a professor of corporate strategy. The first Italian article on succession in family businesses was published in Economia&Management. To assess the contribution made to these studies we simply need to look at the magazine's digital archive. Looking to the future, I believe it is important to continue to promote the contributions of researchers interested in these subjects, perhaps pushing them to produce knowledge on the best practices followed in many successful cases. In the coming years, Italian businesses will have to develop more demanding strategies in terms of M&A, strategic alliances, organizational restructuring, and ownership restructuring. A magazine like Economia&Management will have to continue producing useful knowledge for the entrepreneurs and managers who will have to implement these processes.
In the three years you led Economia&Management, you were able to develop other activities, working as a professor and also pursuing non-academic experiences such as being present on various Boards of Directors. What did that mean for you?
It was a very interesting experience, although not without some difficulties. The main one is linked to the risks you run, including at a civil and criminal level. Overall, though, they are experiences that I would recommend to my younger colleagues. It is a useful way to discover what problems are truly relevant for businesses. And it is also a way to contribute to the development of businesses, a responsibility that must characterize researchers in economic-business disciplines.