Temporal Dimensions of Family Enterprise Research: A complex issue

In the March 2014 issue of Family Business Review, editors Trish Reay, Carlo Salvato and Pramodita Sharma offered an extensive introduction on the “Temporal Dimensions of Family Enterprise Research.” This excerpt, prepared especially for The Practitioner’s April issues on Complexity, continues the collaboration between FBR and The Practitioner through the series of “Research Applied” begun in 2012. For the complete editorial, go here.

What is time and why is it particularly relevant in studies of family business? Time is “a non-spatial continuum in which events occur in apparently irreversible succession from past through the present to the future” (Ancona, Okhuysen, & Perlow, 2001, p. 513). It “is such an obvious factor in social science that it is almost invisible” (Adam, 1990, pg. 3).

As the adage goes, “Time marches on”—no matter what. Therefore, time is a factor that underpins all organizational research, and the study of family business is no exception.

The critical, yet commonly overlooked, role of time was actually present in the very first issue of Family Business Review (FBR). Several articles in that issue focused on transmitting culture, dynastic family wealth, and ownership over generations (Dyer, 1988; P. D. Hall, 1988; Weiser, Brody, & Quarrey, 1988). Another article directed attention to temporal issues within the same generation, such as the identity struggles of a later-born son or daughter who becomes head of the family business (Barnes, 1988). Thus, the seeds of temporal depth in the form of generations and timing as in birth order were planted in these foundational articles.

Have these seeds of time and timing flourished or perished over the years? Perhaps “quiet perseverance” is the appropriate descriptor. Recent reviews indicate that the “landscape” of the family business field is marked by variables focused both on the short- and long-term family and business dimensions (Yu, Lumpkin, Sorenson, & Brigham, 2012). However, studies that explicitly incorporate time-related variables in family business research are exceptions rather than the norm.

The presence of family and multiple generations in family enterprises automatically expands the temporal frame that owners, managers, advisors, and researchers alike assume in their choices and analyses. Thus, the context of family enterprise offers a rich arena to develop and test time-related theories. Despite the omnipresence of temporal issues in family firms and the unique positioning of this literature to focus on “deeper times” and “matters beyond the shallow pasts and futures” (Bluedorn, 2002, p. 258), seldom is the construct of “time” central in family business research. Systematic scientific attention to temporal issues in family firms has been scanty, to say the least. The full explanatory potential offered by embedding time and temporality into conceptual and empirical family business research has yet to be unleashed.

Conceptions of Time

What are the different conceptions of time? Since the invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century, two conceptions of time—clock-based objective time and event-based subjective time—have become part of every-day life.

Questions such as “Is it lunchtime?” or “Is it time for lunch?” illustrate the two conceptions: the first one, in which an event occurs in time, and the second one, wherein time occurs in the event (Bluedorn, 2002, p. 31).

Objective clock-based time describes linear, irreversible, and regular unit(s) that occur either once (e.g., time of birth or death) or cyclically (e.g., seasons, anniversaries). Furthermore, each of these two types of objective times may be predictable (sunrise, sunset), somewhat predictable (life cycles), or unpredictable (natural disasters). Clock or calendar time and its derivatives such as age and years are the most frequent measures of objective time. The mechanical clock has been said to lead to a cultural homogenization of time and the introduction of phrases like “o’clock” (short for “of the clock time”) and “clockwork” (Bluedorn, 2002).

Socially constructed or subjective time reflects the fact that “different social groups create or culturally construct different types of time that become shared meanings” (Ancona, Okhuysen, et al., 2001, p. 515). In turn, these collective meanings affect the behavior of individuals within a group. Examples of this form of time include work or family time, siesta time, prayer time, and sabbatical time.

Three observations have been made about conceptions of time.

  • First, temporal diversification, that is, different conceptions of time, has historically been used to signal in- and out-groups. For example, the different Sabbaths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—Saturday, Sunday, and Friday, respectively—were aimed at signaling the in- and out-group members of different faiths (Bluedorn, 2002). Researchers have observed the phenomenon of the formation of a temporal estuary(2) that leads to formation of new times when two different conceptions of time intermingle (Levine, 1997).
  • The second observation related to the conception of time is the human tendency to believe in the truth or superiority of one’s conception of time. This tendency is referred to as chronocentrism (Bluedorn, 2002; Mumford, 1963).
  • And, the third observation is that time cannot be managed as other resources. Instead, time management entails self-management of activities that we engage in during our time and how we relate to time (Ferner, 1980; Mackenzie, 1997).

In family business studies, the objective clock time–related variables such as age, relative age, duration or length of time and life cycles have appeared in research as predictors, controls, and descriptors as well. For example, Davis and Taguiri (1988) used the relative age of father and son to predict the nature of work relationships between them. Gersick, Davis, Hampton, and Lansberg (1997) used life cycle to describe the evolution of family firms on ownership, family, and business dimensions.

Thus far, family business research has incorporated several versions of “objective time” such as age, relative age, years, and before/after succession. Future research must continue along these lines to understand the changes in the phenomenon of interest within family enterprise using clock time. In addition, research can be directed to explore how changes in institutional forces impact and are influenced by family enterprises.

The subjective conceptions of time, such as “work or family time,” “time to retire,” or “time to take a vacation or a sabbatical,” have not yet found their way into family business research. Weaving these variables explicitly into theoretical frameworks is likely to yield interesting findings. For example, do family members vary in their perceptions of when is a good time to retire from or join a family business?

If so, how are these variations reflected in behaviors and decisions? What are the challenges and opportunities of temporal diversification in family enterprises? Do subgroups within a family enterprise (e.g., minority vs. majority owners, senior vs. junior members, family members vs. in-laws, males vs. females) vary in their interpretation of time? If so, under what conditions do such variations lead to conflicting goals and behaviors? How do temporal estuaries form or develop in family enterprises? Does chronocentrism vary in families controlled by functional or dysfunctional families? Is it subdued or amplified over generations?

Moving Forward in Time

Enterprising families and their entrepreneurial firms offer a wider and deeper scope of temporal vistas to study. In addition to the investigation of changes that extend over a few decades, new temporal lenses in family business studies can help investigate behavioral patterns and outcomes that only become visible over generations. We suggest that these opportunities can be unleashed in family enterprise research. In our field, the interactions among practitioners, researchers, and advisors are strong, opening up opportunities for meaningful research. It is our hope that this issue prompts us all— family business scholars—to use multiple temporal lenses to ask interesting questions and sharpen insights we generate.

About the contributors:

Trish ReayTrish Reay is an associate professor in the strategic management and organization department at the University of Alberta in Canada. She is a frequent presenter at conferences (including the FFI Global conference) around the world. Trish can be reached at [email protected].




Carlo SalvatoCarlo Salvato is an associate professor at Bocconi University, in Milan. A member of the FFI board of directors, he is also the faculty member for GEN 501 Myths, Realities and Trends in the Field of Family Enterprise for the FFI certificate program. Carlo can be reached at [email protected].




Pramodita SharmaPramodita Sharma is an FFI Fellow and the editor of the Family Business Review. She is the Sanders Professor for Family Business at the School of Business Administration, University of Vermont. Pramodita can be reached at [email protected].