Business schools need to make sure the values they instill are future-protective if corporate culture is to stop being a serious threat to sustainability.
By John Elkington
Teflon or Velcro?
Sitting in a corporate boardroom recently, I discussed the difference between Teflon and Velcro companies with a CEO and some of his senior executives. The difference? Teflon companies attract challenges about their ethical, social or environmental impacts, but tend to emerge unscathed and untarnished. Apple was like that for a while, Google too.
With Velcro companies, however, there are more challenges and much of the dirt sticks. The CEO I was talking to runs a business that recently developed strong Velcro tendencies, with yet another negative media story on the day we met.
The range of potential issues thrown at major companies is mind-boggling – and continues to grow.
Google: From Teflon to Velcro
Consider Google, whose Teflon status has been eroding. It has been challenged on such issues as privacy concerns linked to the use of Google Glass spectacles through to safety risks associated with driverless cars. I was intrigued to learn that at least one woman has already been attacked for wearing Google glasses in a San Francisco bar. People, apparently, feel they are being spied upon.
Then, as I was flying a round-trip between London, Jakarta and Singapore late in February, there was the San Francisco bus controversy. Protesters spotlighted Google’s use of public bus stops to pick up passengers for its private employee buses. Google sought to douse the flames by giving $6.8 million to fund a program offering low-income youth free rides on the city's Muni public transport system.
Life Imitating Fiction?
The shock waves created by fast-emerging companies like Google were in my mind as I settled down on an Indonesia-bound Airbus and began to read The Circle, the latest novel by Dave Eggers. The story, as some readers know, revolves around the world’s largest and most powerful Internet company at some point in the near future. A Google on speed.
One memorable moment in the book comes when one of the company’s founders returns from a submarine adventure to the deep ocean Marianas Trench with weird captives, notably a very large—and very transparent—shark. You can see it digest and excrete its prey in whistle-stop time. What happens when the shark is let loose in an aquarium with a range of other creatures symbolizes what can happen when new industries concentrate wealth and power in the wrong hands.
Far from following Google’s “Do No Evil” injunction, The Circle turns out to be pretty much akin to that shark – with ambitions to replace (and, in its mind, improve) the world’s democratic institutions. Toward the end of the novel, another founder of The Circle warns that the company’s accelerating drive to make everything – and every aspect of everyone’s lives – transparent will end up with outcomes that Big Brother could only have dreamed of.
The "New Normal"
All of this was front-of-mind for me as I spoke at a series of conferences organized by Nestlé in Jakarta and Unilever in Singapore. The focus in both countries, not surprisingly, was on things like food security, climate change and under- or over-nutrition.
My aim was to present the “New Normal.” My argument: after more than five decades that have seen a rapid evolution in the societal agenda for business, a range of novel issues are beginning to push their way inside the circles of power, and onto the agenda of the Global C-suite.
The Age of Problems
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all CEOs, companies, industries and economies will respond effectively and in good time. And one key reason for that is that so many top executives around the world have gone through business schools — and MBA courses — in recent decades that taught them to focus on short-term outcomes, in much the same way that the voracious shark did as it emptied the aquarium of all other life.
Just as sharks must keep swimming or die, so must our economies keep growing or risk collapse. The pessimist in me sees our global economy, although it is nowhere near as transparent as the Marianas shark, as hovering up life that has taken millions of years to evolve and excreting it as so much ash and debris.
The Age of Solutions
The optimist side concludes that as our Age of Problems is replaced by the Age of Solutions, we will see new mindsets, new technologies, new business models and, crucially, new cultures spreading through the business world at an accelerating rate.
This more upbeat view was thankfully reinforced when I met the new Dean of INSEAD, based in Singapore. He is part of a new generation of deans and professors in business schools who see issues like market transparency, cradle-to-cradle analysis, zero-based targeting and the circular economy as part of an emerging business reality—the new normal.
Then, a few days after I got back, the director of a new business and sustainability program at University College London, visited us. She left copies of the reading list for their new MSc course, where I will give the closing lecture. The list included heavyweight books on natural resource security, industrial ecology, cradle-to-cradle analysis, the circular economy, shared value, sustainability accounting, integrated reporting and climate change. All well and good, but we should help stretch the imaginations of business students, too.
Although I will again speak of “The New Normal,” lurking behind that will be another title I could have used: “The Shark That Ate Our Future.” Indeed, one of my recommendations to UCL—and to all such educational institutions—is that they should add more relevant novels to their reading lists.
It may not stop young people from making mistakes, but it may make them more cautious about Teflon companies than the young recruit who in the novel’s first paragraph wanders onto the Californian campus of The Circle thinking she has entered heaven.
The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.