DISCUSSION Back to Business

by Yolanda Villafuerte _______23rd June 2008
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by Tony Manwaring

Are politicians at long last going to start treating business seriously?  I ask because I had the great pleasure of hosting a Tomorrow’s Company discussion on the Conservative Party’s policy on ‘Responsible Business’.  We were joined byJonathan Djanogly MP, in the blue corner, and Richard Howitt, MEP, in the red – together with Peter Davis and Toby Webb of the Ethical Corporation Institute.

Sure they did not agree on everything, but what they did agree on was this – business is increasingly setting the agenda when it comes to a whole number of really rather important aspects of ‘making world a better place’: flexible employment practices, which enable more and more people to combine work and home; becoming carbon neutral; ethical sourcing, supporting the inclusion and empowerment of some of the world’s poorest people; and yes, phasing out carrier bags as well.  (This is my list, not their’s, just to be clear)

I’m struck too by the NGO leader working on breakthrough climate change deals in Brussels, commenting that they find it easier to work with business leaders in demanding tough new frameworks, which mean that they can plan ahead, and commit to massive investment programmes in break through technologies, than they do to get officials and politicians to understand that this is what NGOs and business together actually want.

Back in the 1970s, people did talk about business, but this was against the background of industrial decline, an often chronic lack of investment and competitiveness, a complete inability to understand the reality and nature of the transformation in business in practice coming from Japan – and management was locked in a death-grip with trades unions, defending indefensible work practices, bargaining on pay and conditions but not, with a few notable exceptions, addressing much less tackling the fundamentals.

The past was a foreign country, they did things differently then: talking about business then, looking back, is akin to reading reports from a war zone now.  So it is hardly surprising we spent the next twenty five years in denial, neither wanting nor able to talk about business.

In the 1980s, business was set free – and the titans of the new industrial order became icons of the new landscape, but like the faces carved on Mount Rushmore, we probably ended up knowing a lot more about the ‘faces’ of business, than we gained any real sense of what took place within.  Knowing business became to recognise masks.

In the 1990s and early ‘00s, New Labour built on the new consensus about the role of business in society – cynics might argue the main interest was in taxing business to fund social programmes, basking in the afterglow of those business leaders who acquired celebrity status, and calling in those figures as the ‘International Rescue of C21’ to rescue flagship projects like the millennium dome.  ‘Step back and light back the blue touch paper’, became getting a ‘celebrity make over from Mr and Ms Fixit’.

If all of this sounds overstated, there is one simple test: back then most big newspapers had things called industrial correspondents and business journalists, and what’s more, they had lots of them.  Now, you’ve got a better chance of seeing a dinosaur roam Fleet Street!

Actually, I do think there is one notable exception, to this general loss of interest in business, some academics, government officials, and finance journalists aside: and that is Tomorrow’s Company.  You might say I would say it, but I’m still relatively new, and I well remember Mark Goyder, our Founder Director, speaking at a staff conference I had organised, some years ago, on the inclusive approach.

Given the time it takes for these things to take root, it is therefore no accident that the recent reform of company law recognising the duties of the ‘inclusive director’, on the one hand can trace its roots back to the work of the original inquiry team on ‘Tomorrow’s Company’; and on the other, that this has in turn influenced the thinking of people like John Ruggie, in his work on human rights, who cites this reform of company law as an example of what he wants to see.

So step forward Mark and others, who kept the flame alight, in those dark and barren years …

These ‘mega trends’ were reinforced by somewhat simpler considerations.  When I was prepping for being on an Editorial Intelligence panel debating on whether ‘Business has fallen out of Labour?’, I was struck by a trusted colleague who remarked simply:  the thing about business people is this, they like to get on and do things, to make things happen, to see projects through, to deliver and to get things done!

 

He went on: for the most part, business folk aren’t driven by ego, have an almost pathological dislike of the media, and want to keep their heads down and get on with it.  Sure there is a scarey danger of generalisation in what I am writing, but there are some essential truths.  And in any community, it is pretty reassuring that there are some folk out there who are mainly driven by getting on with getting things done.

 

There is a whole sidebar issue about what this means in terms of business and business leaders ceding ground as advocates for business, which really matters if you believe business is a force for good: but that’s the subject for another blog.  Getting back to this blog, though, ‘the times they are a changin’ …

 

Roll on then 2010 and beyond: we’re teetering on a tipping point, and can feel the reverberations through our soles, right through to our souls.   These are scarey times, and perhaps, just perhaps, we should be careful what we are wish for: because business is making a comeback.

Why?  Because the fundamentals of life are also the basic foundations of being able to do business, and these basic building blocks are looking pretty shakey right now.   Water, food, being under a roof that does not flood, climate chaos … the stuff that is at the bottom of any hierarchy of needs, so taken for granted for so long, that you can barely see them down there, can’t be taken for granted any more.

And that means we need to talk to the people who know how to deal with not only these basics, but also to develop and harness new technologies and ways of doing business, to make those things happen.  Which means, yes, business.

Sure, time for the caveat which makes it clear that business is not all important, that it is not the whole solution, etc, etc – but before we fall off the cliff moving onto the back foot, let’s stick with the basic truth that business has a critical and distinctive role, and it is really hard to think that any other section of society can do that thing that business does instead.

So as someone from one of the world’s main food companies reflected to me recently, you know what, politicians are starting to talk with us about what we actually do – and they are asking questions about what they can learn from us!

A far, far cry from the past couple of decades or more where business was out in the cold: these may be no more than first green shoots of a hoped for summer about to get trampled under foot by an early winter, but if we are right then the fundamentals are changing, and those green shoots are going to come to flower.

Business is back, and this time, for all our sakes, it needs to be here to stay.

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