The Purpose of Business

In a recent interview with Business Essentials ( I was asked about the ‘meaning of business’. I think this question is one which deserves a lot of pondering. With capitalism as the only game in town, we must be vigilant in ensuring our business endeavours are helping to create a positive future.

Every business exists to provide a service to the community. In the long-gone romantic village scenario, everyone provided their competency for the common good, and the associated income was almost part of the collective wealth of the community. These days, legislation and the conventional business lore conspire to re-caste business as primarily a money making venture. Directors of companies are required by law to act in the best interests of shareholders. Ambitious entrepreneurs often appear hell-bent on maximising their personal wealth using the hard work of others as the lever.

What we need is a renewed vision of business as a vehicle for the common good. Financially sustainable and profitable – absolutely. Like breathing, if a business stops generating profit it dies. However I contend that the relationships with the various stakeholders (staff, customers, suppliers, the environment etc) are effected substantially when the core motivation is the common good of the community. Financial sustainability and the common good will sometimes, but not always be in tension. This tension is real and requires real savvy to navigate in a world of intense competition. But it should not be a show-stopper.

I wonder what it would look like if business underwent a revolution of sorts? How would the fabric of our society be strengthened by business services being conceived as offerings to make the world a better place, not as an optional extra CSR effort, but as core.

I appreciate that this can sound naïve. Our whole economic system is built on the belief that the ‘market’ moderates and that the power of choice ensures that businesses continue to add real value in the areas that consumers want. I have a sneaking suspicion however, that the market has taken us on a consumerist journey that is undermining the parallel effort to build social capital in our cities. As business presses ahead, and government goes on its outsourcing merry way, community groups who depend on volunteers are increasingly being asked to do the work of community building.

What role do you think business can take in cultivating a healthy future?