business in the 21st century; 3 trends

In the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall on 9th of Nov 1989, I heard many a confident declaration that democratic capitalism had won. ‘Only one show in town’. Maybe so, but we are in the middle of an era when that ‘one show’ is evolving before our eyes. Last week the US government determined to bail out mortgage giants Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac. Most commentators I have heard suggest they had no alternative, however the Market is looking less regal on its throne!

There is now a proliferation of books beginning to envision a new capitalism for the 21st century. There are three main themes in the groundswell of voices. All represent dramatic changes that will reshape the way we live. We are on the front edge of some of these changes already, but next 20 years will see us looking back on 2008 with bewilderment at how rapidly things changed from here.

1.     The first is the need for industry to move to a low carbon economy. Last week’s [Australian Financial Review] Boss Magazine argued that environmentally savvy organisation will have a real leg up in the emerging economy. It’s all about opportunity. Companies that are slow to move will be overtaken by their more agile competitors or new comers.

2.     The second theme is related to globalisation. One dimension of this is the north/south, rich poor divide. Millennium Development Goal number 1 (halving of extreme poverty by 2015) is still in reach but according to the United Nations Development program, this is largely due to economic development in Asia . Foreign aid is being replaced by international development which includes the cultivation of enterprise. In the past this has been mostly micro, but expect this to move to small and medium enterprises. The emergence of China and India has already, and will continue to reshape global capitalism.

3.     The third arena is the nature of work and the role of business in our societies. The workplace, at least in the West, is the last context that adults are still treated as children. Business has, to a large extent, lost the vision of itself as a service to add value to the community. The entrenching of private stock ownership, limited liability, executive stock options and the related addiction to growth (over and above profitability), have all contributed to an environment that is first and foremost about shareholder return … if some community good happens along the way … that is a bonus. This will change. Innovative workplaces will be more flexible, have greater transparency and will recapture their sense of citizenship.

Clive Hamilton articulates the tension to be resolved superbly in the following paragraph from The Freedom Paradox.

“I argue that the extension of the freedoms of the market and the personal freedoms won by the liberation movements have actively worked against our freedom to choose to live more fulfilling lives. The consequence is that people today find it more difficult to know who they are and so understand how to advance their interests. I argue, too, that the dominating political concern in rich countries today is the conflict between economic and political liberties on the one hand and ‘inner freedom’ on the other and that only in a society that nurtures inner freedom is it possible to live according to our true inner purpose.”

I am looking forward to seeing how employers respond to the opportunities to create workplaces that genuinely cultivate human purpose and possibilities. This is ‘big work’ and there is so much to done. Last week’s Boss Magazine also included Hewitt’s annual survey on the best employers. Despite the accolades, the verdict from the judges struck me; the following comment unusual in an article celebrating the best. “All of them were vanilla. Nothing inspirational or bold or fresh.”

However, I am not convinced that there are not some examples of innovative businesses out there that are doing some really interesting things to help, in Hamilton’s language, resolve the tension between the kind of business that succeeds in a free market society, and the inner freedom that is cultivated by participating in a workplace that values human purpose as integral rather than a means to an economic end.

If you know of any businesses that are creating new ways of being, especially in relation to this third dimension of evolution, please let me know. I would love to tell the stories of employers who are helping to invent the future.