April 9, 2013 3:58 pm

The 50 ideas that shaped business today

Help us put a spotlight on the 50 ideas that have shaped the way we now do business

Sometimes, while sitting in a slow-moving meeting, I make a mental note of all the terms I would not have recognised when I started out as a journalist more than 30 years ago: PowerPoint, data analytics, web (except when spun by spiders), online, tablet (except when brought down from Mount Sinai or used to cure headaches), email, download, memory stick.

Yet how many of these innovations have changed the way we do business? I don’t mean how many have altered our day-to-day habits – clearly someone who had not been into an office for decades would take time to adjust to the number of screens and digital displays on our desks. But I am not sure that many of our new toys have changed business in a fundamental way.

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Michael Skapinker

What has?

Over the next few weeks, we at the FT are asking you to help us identify the 50 ideas that have shaped the way we do business today. And we mean really shaped business, rather than just refined it as many digital innovations have done.

Before PowerPoint, we had overhead slides. We used to send paper memos to each other, which served the same function as emails, and had the advantage of being sent only to those who truly needed to see them. We didn’t have Google, but we had librarians, encyclopedias and files of newspaper clippings – which were, arguably, more immediately helpful and better organised than an online search.

So what are the inventions, innovations and processes that have made a fundamental difference to the way we work?

The invention of the telephone and the jet engine have shaped much of what we do today. The telephone made immediate business contact, between offices and countries, possible; many technologies since have built on that. Similarly, business today is unimaginable without the ability to travel long distances, rapidly, to see clients and new markets.

But does that make the aircraft jet engine a candidate for one of the top 50? Or, in the transport field, does that distinction really belong to the motor car or railway?

What about the international business fair? Was London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 an example of an idea that shaped today’s businesses?

Which management ideas or philosophies would qualify? Would it be Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management, which broke tasks down into measurable sections?

Would it be Douglas McGregor’s thoughts on treating workers humanely? What about the multi-division corporation – or, in this day of internet start-ups and flat structures, has its time already passed?

Any list of the ideas that shaped business would have to include legal and financial innovations too. The limited liability company is a central feature of business life today. So is the legally enforceable contract.

And for all the scepticism I expressed above, some digital or web-based products or processes would surely qualify – perhaps the internet itself, which has upended many businesses, from book and newspaper publishing to the music and travel industries.

In the comments section below, please nominate your candidates for the 50 ideas that have shaped business today.

When we have collected them, and added others from FT journalists and assorted experts, we will submit them to a judging panel made up of FT editors, entrepreneurs, management consultants and business historians.

We will name the top 50 here and in a magazine published with the FT on June 13. We will also look at the ideas that some thought would shape business, but failed to do so. Do you remember virtual reality headsets, for example? They have been overtaken by the augmented reality concepts that Google and others are working on. So do suggest some of those business ideas that did not amount to much too.

In addition we will – in what is possibly a foolhardy venture – attempt to predict some ideas that might shape the businesses of the future, so we would welcome your suggestions there as well.

Your nominations are crucial to the success of the 50 ideas project. So please submit generously. You can also email us with your suggestions at 50ideas@ft.com

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