Way, way, back, during the time of Hudson's Bay Company, corporations were chartered (with a specific purpose like building a road and a sunset clause) to serve the public good (and often feed the coffers of the nation states that chartered them.)
By the time I was out of college, long gone was the focus on public good. In the 1970's it was vogue to say the purpose of business was to make money. (And I thought, huh? That's like thinking the purpose of living is to breathe... a requirement for existence but not much of a purpose!)
Then in the 1980's the quality revolution happened and suddenly all the gurus were saying that business was to serve customers: Edwards Deming, Philip Crosby, Tom Peters. "The customer is always right" became the mantra.
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So let me offer a reframing. I think organizations are the primary way in our modern society that we ....
OFFER OUR GIFTS/TALENTS TO CONTRIBUTE TO SOCIETY.
What does this reframing do?
- It shifts the focus from customers to managers and employees—who are we, what are we good at, what do we love to do, what problems do we want to be part of solving. what do we want our legacy to be? At AXIS, Marsha Willard and I reinvented our focus about every decade, following our interests as we developed and grew. This is far more empowering and satisfying than viewing your job as life-long servitude to customers.
- It calls on business to serve the greater good—Goodness knows, we need a bit more ethics and morality in business these days after the Enron-Worldcom-LehmanBros-JunkMortgage-CreditDefaultSwap messes! Instead, calls for Conscious Capitalism are emerging, recognizing that society needs business to help solve the world's problems and business needs a moral underpinning to attract talent and customers alike.
- It makes it easier to reinvent the business when things change—In today's fast paced world, entire industries come and go. Think about the video rental stores, now empty storefronts. But if you keep asking yourself, "What does the world need from us now?" it opens up new lines of business and avoids the stagnation trap so many successful organizations fall into.
- It makes it easier to collaborate—Too many organizations and executives want to control it ALL. Gobbling up competitors, moving into all territories, bankrupting local businesses. But this often leads to hubris and over-reach. Why can't we just do what we do in our own ecosystem and help others succeed in theirs? For example, at AXIS, we designed our products like S-CORE and SPaRK in a way that other sustainability consultants could use them and profit from them, while we got a bit of income along the way.
- It makes it easier to let organizations die a natural death—In today's world, organizations take on a life of their own, fighting to stay in business, sometimes outliving their usefulness. But if the organization is the way each of us in the organization offers our talents to society, then when we leave, perhaps the organization doesn't have to keep going. Maybe perpetual growth isn't the goal or even useful. I have seen too many non-profits and a number of for profits try to hang on way past their use-by date.
Try putting up this assertion on the company bulletin board next to the coffee pot and see what happens:
The purpose of organizations is to provide a venue for each of us
to offer our talents to contribute to society.
So what does the world need from us now?