Business can transform our world

The state we are in

Whether we work in a business, a government department, a political party, or even a charity, we probably experience similar pressures every day: to ‘perform’; to achieve short-term targets (especially financial targets); to comply with policies, processes or regulations. All of our actions are continuously measured and reported on.

The language of business is about ‘delivery’, ‘results’ and ‘performance’. It describes what the business does, not why it’s there in the first place. It’s hard to imagine a senior manager saying, “Good morning, I want us to spend the next three hours thinking deeply about why we are here and how we can make a positive contribution to the world”.

As a result of this lack of space for collective reflections, over time some key organisations have become inward-looking and self-serving, and the people within them have lost meaning in what they are doing. Political parties make re-election their first priority; governments are obsessed with their public image and popularity ratings; businesses focus on next quarter’s profit; graduates measure their success by the attractiveness of the corporate packages they secure. The wider implications of their actions on society may be talked about in external communications or feature in CSR programmes, but they are not what defines an organisation or what makes the people within it tick.

In the business world, the consequences of this quantitative, performance-based culture and mechanical thinking leap out at us from the pages of our newspapers every day – whether it’s banks helping wealthy clients to evade taxes, pharmaceutical sales reps ‘incentivising’ doctors, or child labour exploited by the clothing industry. It’s all in the pursuit of ever-higher short-term profits and returns.

Unsurprisingly, wider society has lost trust in big business, as people now believe that all those businesses ultimately care about are ‘the numbers’. Unsurprisingly, the people who make up large corporations have lost meaning of their work, as they perform tasks mechanically without understanding why they do what they do and how it impacts wider society. Unsurprisingly, competition has fragmented society, as success is measured on how we do against each other, not how we do collectively.

Reasons for hope

At the same time it is so natural for people to think and share their ideas, inspire and learn from each other. Human beings are the only species to have two interrelated capacities: imagination and storytelling. We view the world beyond its physical boundaries and we share our observations with others through stories to co-create meanings of abstract concepts, such as love, purpose, spirituality, identity, fear…

We don’t know why we started to look for meanings beyond the physical or why we started telling stories, but throughout history, artists, writers, philosophers and politicians have gathered to imagine a better world and inspire each other to make it happen.

We see how different communities today are weaving their own new stories in to try and make sense of this new, complex and interconnected world. Curious people within academia, business, social entrepreneurship, consultancies etc., are reaching out to others to seek answers collectively, to see the world holistically and to understand their role in it today.

Global businesses too are made up of these curious, capable people, who care about society, who are interested in understanding the world and their contribution to it beyond the scope of their own areas of expertise; who see business as a lever of prosperity. They have the potential to address socio-economic challenges and secure sustainable growth. They understand that the complexity of global issues (the environment, inequality, unemployment, etc.) requires a holistic and systematic approach that emphasises the importance of relationships and collaboration. These issues may challenge short-term profits, but they are also a source of long-term growth for those organisations that are able to innovate in a way that will benefit society.