Viewpoint: Family businesses are about to hit the mainstream

Photo by Lisa-Blue/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Lisa-Blue/iStock / Getty Images

The study of family businesses across the world of academia is about to go mainstream. It is about to be a centre subject in all business courses around the world. Here’s why.

Let’s first look at the evolution of family business studies. The study of family businesses was a marginal topic up until the 1990s. In the nineties, people started seeing it was relevant and the first wave of greater awareness emerged with some pioneering business schools, such as Harvard and IMD, setting up executive level courses on the subject.

The study of family businesses will become a standard curriculum level course

Then we started getting case studies of prominent family businesses and people started asking whether there was any evidence behind the success stories of family businesses. And this led to a second wave of the institutionalisation of the subject. This was the research-based phase.

But now we are entering a third wave and most exciting evolution of the subject. The study of family businesses will become a standard curriculum level course. So undergraduate and graduate-level students between the ages of 18 and 30 will become much more aware of the importance of family businesses to the overall culture and success of the business world.

It will be like what happened to the study of entrepreneurship 20 years ago - family business studies will become mainstream. Indeed, family business studies will become more legitimate and accessible. The field is going to establish itself as an academic discipline much more. And that’s going to lead to the demand for more accessible materials around the subject.

We need to prepare the materials for the next phase of the institutionalisation of family business studies

This is why I’ve written a new book entitled Managing the Family Business Theory and Practice. The book is in many ways a classic textbook on family businesses. So, as such, it covers the challenging questions people would encounter when managing a family firm, like succession and governance. But it also explores strategic and financial management, the sector’s contribution to the world economy, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of family businesses. It also discusses the interpersonal dynamics in families who are in business.

We need to prepare the materials for the next phase of the institutionalisation of family business studies. And the book is part of those efforts. The idea is to make knowledge on the subject more accessible.

Most of the current books on family businesses go into some particular aspect of the subject like governance, succession, or psychology of family businesses. What is missing is an overview. Managing the Family Business Theory and Practice will help to provide that overview and allows anyone interested to dig deeper into the subject.

This is truly an exciting time for the study of family businesses. As the subject goes mainstream, it will not only be central to the world of business studies but will also gain greater acceptance in society as a whole.


Thomas Zellweger is professor of management at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland