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Business creativity and the common good

Business is personal, and with its ranges of activities across moral, ecological, social and creative spectrums, it always has been.

Technology is created when human creativity is applied. So are business enterprises. We apply our various faculties and capabilities to pursue a goal a goal or objective of some kind. What we intend to do may be noble, nasty or, far more likely, somewhere in between. We do this as individuals, yes—but the most prevalent form of creative pursuit by far is carried out in the company of others with whom we share some aspect of our aspirations.

Organizational species we are familiar with today include what we typically refer to as for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. These distinct kinds of entities exist because of legislative decisions that stretch back a couple of centuries to the formation of the corporation as a person in the eyes of the law (provocatively documented by Canadian lawyer Joel Bakan in The Corporation) and the establishment of state-granted charitable status for organizations whose purpose was to contribute to the good of others rather than generate profit for shareholders.

The business landscape is dynamic, developing interesting directions today that reflect the boisterous creativity of all forms of human enterprise. Breaking away from traditional models of philanthropy, some enterprising individuals and teams have been creatively exploring hybrid organizational approaches that occupy the zone between for-profit and not-for-profit structures. Commonly referred to as social entrepreneurships, these organizations' driving idea—that the revenue generation structures of for-profit businesses might be utilized in a way that feeds the common good mandate of a not-for-profit enterprise—is gaining ground.

Rather than relying on the residual donations of wealthy business owners or corporations, social entrepreneurs design organizations that generate revenue by means other than direct donations. In some cases, they actually make money by offering something people are willing to pay for, but the revenues are applied to a common good rather than going to an owner. The Stanford Graduate School of Business is fostering this innovative space through the Stanford Social Innovation Review, tracing and fueling the development of these types of experiments by featuring the "best strategies of non-profits, foundations and socially responsible businesses ... to lead in the search for new and better ways of improving the lot of the world."

The rapid development of social technologies is playing an important role in accelerating this process of experimentation and creative problem solving by allowing new relationships to form in ecological landscape of business. The well-known story of Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, is a good example of an individual who saw a need in the lending market for very small loans but was unable to convince existing profit-driven institutions to take the market seriously. He believed that microfinance was a very under-developed market, a space that was ripe for creative microcredit services. In Yunus' mind, very small business operators represented significant capacity not individually but collectively through their sheer numbers.

Bringing together both the in-between microcredit space identified by Yunus and the powerful scaling capability of the internet, Kiva founders Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley established an organization that connects small loans from individuals to entrepreneurs who are under-capitalized to the point of being unable to afford to buy, for example, a sewing machine. Kiva is a lending agency that doesn't aim to dominate a downtown skyline with a prestigious office tower but is instead designed to use sound business practices and technology to connect small lenders with small enterprises. The long-term viability of such experiments remains to be seen, but regardless of their tenure, such efforts represent the continuously changing creative mix of human altruism, technology, supply, demand, organization and need.

Organization building, enterprise establishment, economic renewal, bringing new life to aging institutions, freelancing and making significant contributions as part of a working team can all be deeply creative endeavours. They are, therefore, capable of deep redemptive impact or powerful disfigurement with infinite variation between these two extremes. If, as Bakan suggests, modern corporations are sociopaths that exist only for themselves, then more socially responsible forms of conducting business are needed that go well beyond token corporate donations to charities of one kind or another.

It may well be that the changing social ecologies of our time will fuel that change. This adjustment may be mandatory if survival matters. It is unrealistic to hope that exploitative corporations will somehow stir from their narcissistic stupor and begin to set right their collective wrongs. If, however, in an age when technology makes the aims and habits of corporations more transparent, it may be that the conditions themselves will engender more responsible choices.

You can "lose" by failing to compete with others or by failing to deal with the environment you are living in. With the changing social environment, corporations that actually do good while minimizing their negative impact may in fact persist and thrive while the unmasked, overconsumptive corporation becomes a pariah without respect and therefore, without customers or employees. Dominant stereotypes of business people as money-hungry, self-serving and deceitful might in time be replaced by an image of creativity, social responsibility and deep concern for the wider global community. The idea that success in business means being enough of a scoundrel to get your own nice pile of goods without being so much of a scoundrel that you end up in jail may, in time, be replaced by a more culturally meaningful and responsible form of redemptive pursuit—good ideas that contribute something of lasting value to society.

If in a continuously changing world one must always run in order to stay in the same place, then it is worthwhile to be nimble and adaptive. A person or business shows creativity and ingenuity by dealing successfully with change. Our participation in business enterprises is a complex process. Clear lines between producers and consumers, boss and employee, owner and hired worker, have been softened as the collective power of markets engages in near-mortal combat with more informed and selective consumers and individuals. Differentials of power, resources, and influence will continue to generate turbulence. Creative application of sound ideas, if carried out by institutions that are aware of how their actions can erode or engender the lives of others, are essential to all of us.

I have become increasingly appreciative of the deeply creative process of organizational development and economic activity of all sorts through paying attention to the way in which technology, a product of business, has in turn shaped how business functions (including the human dimension). Technology has changed many aspects of business. There is far greater ability today to move laterally through networks as people are increasingly able to connect to whomever they want whenever they want. Today there are lower thresholds for businesses that want to participate across a wider market. For example, I can sell a book online to someone in Vancouver, British Columbia, about as easily as I can to someone in Hamilton, Ontario (where I live). That connectivity has both social and economic implications.

From railroad barons to wealthy newspaper magnates, every generation has powerful icons that represent, for them, business at its most potent—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet and other famous (and wealthy) individuals. The potency they possess may be notorious, revered, or simply unclear—but their fame and its resultant power is recognized. They are responsible for their influence. What they decide matters to other people and therefore is personal, at some level.

Business is personal. It always has been. Sometimes we try to shield ourselves from the scorn of others when we choose money over a greater good by saying that "it's just business." But that's a bit like the doctor telling you it won't hurt—much—moments before plunging a 25-gauge needle into your leg to freeze it in preparation for stitching up a nasty cut. I once had my finger repaired by a doctor who said he could dispense with freezing because that would hurt more than just sewing my gaping finger closed.

In my case, he was wrong. Freezing would have meant a couple of needle pricks. His stitching meant several in-and-out needle holes with the added fun of dragging the thread through those holes as the sutures were tightly knotted. Needles do hurt—and business is personal, with ranges of activities possible across the moral, ecological, social and creative spectrums.

Business turbulence introduced by technological disruptions of one kind or another means that some will benefit and some will lose out. It may be that between the oscillating poles of the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors, new institutional forms will continue to emerge that will thrive in our percolating social-ecological landscape. Creativity, courage, community and inventive exploration will be indispensible if we have any aspirations to benefit others, contribute to the common good and represent a life that is fully alive through our personal and institutional work.

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Milton Friesen Milton Friesen
Milton Friesen is Program Director, Social Cities for Cardus. ... read more »

Posted in Business, Culture, Markets.

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