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A Meaning Economy?


I’ve written before about what a Conscious Business is. And what it is not. But no man, and no business, is an island. Businesses live and operate in a market.

And what kind of market is that? At the moment, for example, we seem to have:

  • Web 2.0 people theorising about the importance of ethereal content over physical objects, of production versus consumption;
  • psychologists, and even the UK government, propounding the importance of well-being and happiness;
  • an ever-growing discussion of environmental sustainability;
  • the feminisation of the work-place;
  • the rise of long-term, inter-generational thinking;
  • and, of course, the rise of Conscious Business – in all its various shapes and forms.

Could this all be part of an even bigger trend for the market? A shift towards what we might call a “meaning economy“? We’ve had the information economy, and the knowledge economy. (Once I even heard talk of a “wisdom” economy.)

A meaning economy for me is one in which people’s basic needs are already met through the producing power of our industrial economy. And instead people start to change their focus towards gaining more meaning in their lives.

But what is meaning? Meaning is an answer to the question “why?”, not the industrial age questions of “how many?”, or “how much?. We know how to answer those questions and we know how to answer questions about “what”, “who”,  and sometimes even “when”. Why we want things, why we have things, why we do things: the answers remain much more elusive.

Put another way, is the overall market changing so that people are no longer satisfied with just goods, and no longer satisfied with shabby, or any, “services” – are they seeking instead to fulfil their higher values?

Of course this won’t mean much to the billion at the bottom of the pyramid. But for the aspirational 5 billion people in the world – is that where we are heading?

If so, this might mean different things in relation to each of the product types we are already familiar with, and we can see that some of these trends are already underway in some areas of the economy:

  • for a physical, tangible product it means valuing the associated brand and reputation more than just the product itself;
  • for a service it means valuing the associated relationships more than just the service itself;
  • for content it means producing something that deeply touches the heart and soul, not just the mind.

In business more generally it might mean shifting our emphasis as we try to build revenue and profitability. Shifting it:

  • from technological innovation to service innovation;
  • from growing functional value to growing relationship value;
  • from improving process quality to a focus on the quality of the customer experience;
  • from strategies that grow transactional volumes to those that grow loyalty and retention;
  • and even from strategies designed to reduce cost to strategies of investment;
  • and so on.

All of these things have been identified before, of course. And some would say that a knowledge economy leads to some of these things. So, I wonder, does it add anything to see this as a change in the market to meaning away from information and knowledge? What else might that ‘frame’ tell us?

Author: Pete Burden

New ways to organise and lead - for people with 'purpose' #leadership #inquiry #noticing #complexity #communication

5 thoughts on “A Meaning Economy?

  1. While I agree that that these values have been identified before, I think that they were generally used as a marketing tool in an attempt to make us feel more engaged with big corporate companies/brands. The messages were not underpinned by any significant changes in culture within the organisations spouting the words.

    Mainly due to the huge amount of information that is now available on the internet, we, the consumer, discovered that the same organisations that told us that they wanted long term relationships with us were also destroying our planet, relying on child labour for cheap goods, risking the financial health of the globe with gamblers odds or simply “spinning” a line. Before the internet gave us a way to express our disgust, we bacame disenfranchised and sceptical, but often unable to wield any real power to influence changes.

    We live in an extraordinary time of new opportunities. The internet gives individuals and groups a voice. Over a very short period we can see more and more people demanding changes. Informed consumers vote with their purse and there is pressure on the traditional power structures to catch up and change. The immediacy and availability of information prevents governments and corporations having time to “spin” the message. If companies want to make profit then they have to change. Instead of investing their huge marketing budgets in catch phrases and “spin” they will have to spend it on their policies and culture. That is what is beginning to matter to the informed consumers.

    So, although there are very few new strategies, I think that smart companies will begin to understand that this time real change must be behind the words – otherwise they are wasting money that would be better spent addressing the changes that they will inevitably have to make in the future. Big Brother is looking at you – only this time, Big Brother is the consumer!

  2. The Economy of Meaning is real and happening right now. It will change everything we are doing. Thank you for writing about it. I first started writing about this in 2008 and have now dedicated my website to exploring this topic.

  3. A really great talk by Will McInnes @rebuild21 on the meaning organisation.

  4. Pingback: Selling with congruence « Conscious Business

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