Devaluation of Experience? Expectation Formation in Small and Medium Sized Enterprises in the Period of Economic Structural Change since the 1970s

Prof. Dr. Werner Plumpe, Frankfurt a. M. (Principal Investigator)

Dr. Friederike Sattler, Frankfurt a. M.


Project description at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University


The project inquires about the value of historical experience for the expectation formation in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the period of economic structural change since the 1970s: Has the structural change along with its growing demands for decisionmaking led to a devaluation of experience-based knowledge for the expectation formation of these mostly owner- or family-operated businesses?

We have a twofold working hypothesis: First, we assume that the ever-present and intuitively employed empirical knowledge of the owners and executives of SMEs in the mid-1960s was significantly impacted by the entrepreneurial successes of the first two post-war decades. Second, we simultaneously assume that during a process of professionalization of management this empirical knowledge was replaced by certain functional equivalents of a more “rational” oriented, non-personal, organizational expectation formation according to Niklas Luhmann. If one follows this hypothesis, it can be assumed that a conscious waiver of the rather intuitive-adaptive expectation formation drawing upon individual experiences took place in favor of an increased use of methodical advanced techniques of analysis and prognosis along with consulting procedures in all relevant areas of corporate governance. However, this assumption needs to be questioned at the same time: Perhaps even contrary developments took place because the professionalization process – in the face of repeated corporate crises reached quickly its own limits? Did the owners and managing directors of SMEs – being confronted with increasing difficulties in coping with the structural changes – rely perhaps even more on empirical knowledge, but dating farther back or extending into other areas? The project will tackle these questions in three fields of examination: First, the arrangement of owner relationships and the structures of management and control; second, the choice of strategies and organizational structures derived from them; third, the planning and implementation of investments and financing them.

We plan to work with an interdisciplinary methodical approach that combines the ideas of truly bounded rationality (Gerd Gigerenzer/Reinhard Selten), animal spirits (George Akerlof/Robert Shiller), and fictional expectations (Jens Beckert). In a first step we will create a dynamic heuristic model for experience-based expectation formation in SMEs since the 1970s. In a second step, this model will be used for the empirical analysis of a case study (Philippine/Saarpor). That will allow a critical examination, and, if necessary, subsequent adjustment of the model itself.