MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

What can tradition-rooted family businesses learn from future-focused MIT?

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean of MIT Sloan Executive Education

John Davis, a globally recognized authority and pioneer in the field of family enterprise, has joined MIT Sloan as a Senior Lecturer and is launching a series of new executive education programs designed to address the needs of family owners.

There’s an old Danish saying that it’s dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future. But being better informed about what’s happening in the present can go a long way to helping navigate, or at least keep moving in the right direction, in uncertain times. Organizations that partner with MIT Sloan Executive Education recognize the importance of understanding how technology driven business disruptions influence long-term strategy in virtually every industry. For family-owned businesses with a long tradition of doing things a certain way, the breakneck speed of technological change can feel especially disorienting. Disruption and change are shortening time horizons for all businesses, but family businesses have extra layers of complexity—the future success of the business is inseparable from the well-being of the family—and all the more reason to be better educated about the future.

We are excited to welcome John Davis, a renowned authority in the family enterprise field, to MIT Sloan and look forward to exploring in depth the issues and challenges of family ownership and sustaining multigenerational success.

One thing especially interesting about this for us is that there are many large, global businesses we work with already that we tend not to think of as family businesses, when, in fact, they are. This new series of programs that Davis will be leading as Faculty Director will offer a different lens for us to think about many of the companies we work with. What are the peculiarities that drive the decision making of family owners vs. private equity companies or wholly publicly traded ones? How can leaders of these companies apply the frameworks developed by our faculty to their businesses? What aspects of our teaching are the most valuable and useful to family business owners?

One might argue that family ownership gives companies more freedom from shareholder or market pressures to allow for more experimentation in how they run their business. That said, family-owned businesses operate in the same economic reality as everyone else. They grapple with the same challenges as any other business today—digital transformation, globalization, societal shifts, etc.—subjects where MIT Sloan faculty excel. The powerful combination of MIT research and Davis’s deep knowledge of family enterprise offers an opportunity for families to gain valuable perspectives on sustaining success for generations.

“Where MIT really has done a lot of work and can add a lot to the thinking around family enterprise, is the area of technological change and disruption and how it’s influencing industries, business models, and the way work is done,” says Davis. “There is no faculty out there that is stronger in these ways than my new colleagues at MIT.” He is absolutely right in that assessment. Our faculty share the business implications of their research-based insights in programs we offer on topics like artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), cybersecurity, and blockchain technologies, to name a few.

Davis is excited to invite family owners to learn from these insights. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and my work now is about the future of family enterprise,” he says. “Where business is going, how ownership is changing, how capital is being raised, and how families are changing. All of these trends influence the nature of family enterprise, and I am mapping these changes and thinking about how this influences not just the management of a company, but the role of owners of these companies.”

With two-thirds of all businesses around the world being family business, these firms create 70%–90% of global GDP annually.* Naturally, the success of these firms has enormous effect on the economic health of countries and the well-being of their citizens. Impact in the world is a big part of the MIT Sloan mission, so connecting with these influential contributors to the global economies would be directly supportive of that aim.

At MIT, we are inventing the future in many ways. That’s why Davis is here, and that’s why MIT’s Sloan School of Management is the place for organizations to learn about the future. To be sure, there are other sources of information out there—the world is teeming with consultants and other “solutions providers.” However, university-based executive education doesn’t just give you a ready-made solution—it’s a place where you have the freedom to explore new ideas, experiment with new approaches, and, guided by experienced faculty, build a strategy or find a solution that you may never have thought possible. In other words, we help businesses and other organizations build the capabilities they need to succeed. We are excited to have John Davis joining the MIT Sloan team, adding significantly to our own capabilities. And we look forward to welcoming the first group of family owners to Future Family Enterprise: Sustaining Multigenerational Success in 2019.

*Global Data Points by Family Firm Institute

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