We are at a critical moment in the ways that individuals and organisations think about their place – physical and emotional – their purpose, priorities, value and contribution, their behaviours and conduct and their interactions with others.
For many years, businesses have been slowly moving from a largely protectionist way of thinking to a more collaborative one – with other businesses, through strategic partnerships and alliances.
More recently though, some businesses have been moving towards ever more meaningful, inclusive, immersive relationships with other types of organisation and other parts of society – to move beyond business collaboration and into something more visceral – innovative co-creation through really compelling coalitions for change – to address substantial issues that are seemingly outside the usual province and role of business generally or industries specifically – but that are really important to the people business reaches out to – it’s stakeholders within their organisations and across society.
My aim here is to share thoughts and ideas on a central theme in my work – to build a case for re-imagining human roles in future, valuable business transformation and to reflect on what this means for business.
The great systems thinker, Peter Senge, states that “There is no ‘the system’. There are only interdependent interactions, patterns and outcomes”.
That pretty much sums up my work and my world. I think it pretty much sums up yours too and I know it sums up THE world as it is rapidly becoming very much more complex and changed – as it transforms in accelerated and profound ways and as it desperately tries to either go back to normal or find a slightly new normal. I hope it rips up the rule book and starts again.
In the work that I do, mostly centred around change, I have seen a recent step change in the emphasis placed on each of Peter Senges words as concepts and behaviours. Until very recently, interactions and outcomes have been dominant – but now, it is interdependency that has risen to the surface – along with the resulting patterns that form as interdependent parts begin to work and move differently together – to interact in new ways.
We are seeing this step change everywhere
Within businesses – between employees and employers, leaders and followers, teams, partnerships, alliances and collaborative ecosystems.
Between business and other society stakeholders like The Civil Society (in all its many forms) – as witnessed by the rise in Business as a Force for good, significant upscaling in what used to be called CSR but is now widely described as ESG, contribution to community, influence in place-shaping and making, affect on common goals, social causes, value and much else.
Between business and government, education, healthcare and other institutions of authority – and leadership of society’s strategic direction (and future) – and what we worryingly still call ‘The System’.
Between all of these, as each tries to re-define their place, their meaning and their contribution to change and the future.
All over the world people are advocating an end to the US AND THEM culture of THE CONSUMER AGE and the development of a WE culture in the CITIZEN age. And yet we are living in one of the most divisive, polarised and socially aware periods in history. Division and polarisation are as old as humanity but the real difference now is transparency, awareness, share of thought, ideas and opinions – between people who have access to unlimited (real and fake) information and to each other. This both polarises AND brings together. Like Yin and Yang, polarisation, perversely, creates an interdependency in itself.
But how do we create a WE culture whilst also kicking the shit out of each other? It is one of the big challenges of our emerging age.
What is the role of business?
In the middle of all this, serious questions are being raised about the role of business and even capitalism – and it is less about whether these should exist (although some advocate they shouldn’t) and more about HOW they should exist, co-exist and conduct themselves in the future.
There are serious questions being raised about the PURPOSE of business. Is it solely about PROFIT and SHAREHOLDER value as Milton Friedman and others advocated back in the 1960’s and that has been business doctrine ever since? – or is it about SOCIAL VALUE, CONTRIBUTION and STAKEHOLDER value – whilst also making profit? Is this an unstoppable change in strategic thinking about the role of business, as some hope and as COVID has accelerated – or is it a blip – an anomaly – something to be tolerated until we all go back to normal?
These are all big, hairy arsed concepts and ideas. Many in business might think that they are just philosophical debate and not REAL business, on the ground where the action is. All my work in the civil society suggests otherwise – that business has a vital role to play in society’s future.
Besides, and here’s a thing, it’s not really what business thinks about this that is important. The only thing of any consequence is what employees, customers, consumers, concerned citizens and audiences think.
If employees and customers, aka real people, are changing their attitudes to the interactions, interdependencies and outcomes that they have with business and everything else – and if all the complex value systems that they have are changing, business needs to take all this very seriously. Some businesses ARE taking this seriously and are profoundly changing as a result.
Mind the gaps
I have spent some of my time over a 35 year career closing the gaps and creating the right interdependencies, interactions, patterns and outcomes WITHIN organisations – in businesses of all scales and markets, in governments and in a wide range of public, NGO and civil society organisations.
But I spend most of my time in trying to close the gaps BETWEEN these organisations – particularly focusing on the interdependent interactions between the profoundly different types of organisations that drive society (that’s all of US by the way) – from ACROSS business, government and the civil society. I call this ‘compelling coalition building’.
As, notionally, a Strategist (because I can’t find a better title) my role is to identify patterns, create better interdependent interactions (because we are all interdependent now), find commonalities and engineer better outcomes – all designed to ensure that the ‘compelling coalitions for change’ – the bringing together of capabilities – that I work to create and grow can become more purposeful (in the visceral not fluffy sense of the word), more beneficial, more profitable (in every sense), deliver better outcomes to all their stakeholder communities and, as the mighty Alex Edmans describes it, ‘Grow their Pie’ – all while defining the things that many people in many organisations don’t like – ideas, long term futures, mission (we can debate the distinction between mission, vision and purpose another time!!!), and my personal favourite – organisational conduct (usually called culture but I prefer conduct because that is how we really act) – and what informs and is informed by this.
Frankly, it’s a head f***.
Working within organisations is relatively simple. Working between similar organisations (say businesses) is relatively complicated, but working between organisations that are very different from each other (with very different motives, expectations, cultures, outcome requirements and success metrics) but who increasingly recognise the need to work together, interdependently, to lead society and social change, is profoundly complex.
It’s complex when the interdependent interactions, patterns and outcome requirements are in a steady state. But, as we all know, steady state, aka balance, is a myth. It always was and it always will be. All these things are continuously changing whether we choose to see this or not. The reasons for change are many and various. Sometimes, like now, change is profound, complex and overt – chaotic even – but often change is subtle, almost benign, barely discernable until it rears up and bites you where it hurts.
We need a re-think
Increasingly, there is a need to re-think how we all engage in interdependent interactions – between each other as individuals, between parts of organisations, between likeminded organisations, within valuable partnerships and alliances and, most importantly, between individuals and organisations who have never interacted meaningfully before but who now recognise the need to because this is an imperative for us all, for resolution of profound issues, for essential and systemic change and for each of us as interdependent individuals.
I believe that we are living in a new Human Age where we need to re-define almost everything and we certainly need to re-define business – if not for ourselves then for future generations of humans – buyers, workers, exchangers – citizens.
Age of Human
My thoughts about this are so strong and so deeply felt that I and others chose to create a movement for change – not transformation and certainly not digital transformation but real human change in the ways that business is defined, led, orchestrated and conducted – to be better fit for future, human purpose, to better serve interconnected, interdependent individuals, organisations, alliances and society, to better meet the needs of everyone who currently works in this wonderful world of business and, everyone who follows in the future – and to reinstate the human condition that sits at the intersection between business and the rapidly changing world that business influences so much.
We have called this movement, quite obviously, AGE OF HUMAN. You can visit and join the movement here at ageofhuman.org.
Wrapping up before you all fall asleep
As a passing thought, absolutely everything I have just discussed and everything we humans can be for the future is technology and data enabled. Every transformation, every benefit and every millimetre of progress we make will have technology and data at it’s core from now on – but only if us humans use it wisely.
The challenge is, however, in how to better use that technology and data to truly achieve what some talk about but only a few action – I mean successfully putting the human being in the age of humans, at the centre of our universe.
I think we are very close to the point where the answer to this will be the defining feature of how WE define business and society in OUR Human Age.
We owe this to those who follow.