If you think the purpose of business is to make money, you’re wrong. The purpose of business is to best serve its customers and the communities with and within which it operates. Those that succeed in doing so will make money as a by-product, but that is neither their purpose nor their right. Our failure to remember that, and to enshrine it effectively in our regulatory and political systems, has led to catastrophic results – for people, the planet and most recently the public purse. The current financial crisis shows all too clearly what happens when business forgets that its first duty is to its customers and communities – and not to profit. At some point, the bubble bursts and you’re left with a sticky mess.
Recession is here and depression, it seems, may be just around the corner. But when we emerge from this downturn, the most savvy and successful organisations will be playing a new game where flexibility, openness, agility and collaboration are what count. The new game is being made possible by new technology, but it’s being driven by people – and their desire to create a more dynamic and sustainable business world that fosters good ideas and supports talented people.
Companies must also put what the jargonistas call ‘corporate social responsibility’ at the very heart of their organisational strategy, not just as a glib clause in their ‘statement of corporate values’ or marketing literature. There are people who pooh-pooh this as unattainable and idealistic. They maintain ‘ethical business’ is an oxymoron. They say it is unrealistic to expect companies to engage in activities unilaterally that would make them less profitable or competitive.
More enlightened businesses, however – including some of the world’s leading organisations – recognise things like sustainability, open collaboration (both within and beyond the walls of their organisations) and the need to attract talented people are connected issues that they have to take very seriously indeed. They don’t think doing so will make them less profitable or less competitive. Quite the opposite: they realise it is absolutely critical to their long-term success. They know they must operate in a way that balances the needs and concerns of a wide range of communities, many of whom will increasingly be socialising, collaborating and sharing information online – including their customers, their employees, their suppliers, their partners, campaign groups and ad-hoc online coalitions.
I have been arguing many of these points for over a decade, but we are now reaching a tipping point for their acceptance and adoption. Yet many businesses, individuals and legislators are woefully uninformed about and unprepared for the changes they need to make. What do they need to know to start playing? What moves should they make, how quickly and in what order? Are they fit enough? What are the obstacles on the course? How much luck do they need? What’s the cost of entering? How should they put together their teams? How do they win? Who’s already got a head-start? In this blog I plan to explore the rules of this new game, as well as commenting on other connected developments and conversations (and I hope starting some). Some of the answers are out there, others still need to be articulated, developed or formulated. But one thing’s certain – you’d better not take your eyes off the board.