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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Vive la difference?

Someone sent me this paper the other day written by Jane Lorand who runs a Green MBA at a university in the USA. The arrival of many more Green and Sustainable MBAs will no doubt mean we get a lot more of this kind of thing. I am not sure I am looking forward to it.

Lorand argues that “For today’s businesses, there exist two distinct paradigms about what is real and important.” She separates these paradigms and describes the characteristics of each, including the beliefs on which she believes they are based.

For “Business-As-Usual” companies “1) Everything is Separate and 2) Materialism is the Only Reality”.

And for sustainable companies “1) Everything is Connected and 2) Spirit and Matter Co-exist to Form Reality.”

There are things I like about the paper. I enjoy breaking things down into categories. But I think we need to be careful not to be too hard on Business-As-Usual companies.

For one thing, Lorand says that “individuals who work in Business-As-Usual corporations find it very difficult to assert belief structures, identities or methods inconsistent with their corporation.”

She also suggests that Business-As-Usual has a singular goal: “maximizing financial profit for shareholders.”

I worked for a large US corporation during the 1980s and while profit was important as far as I could tell it was never the single goal of the company. The goals were much more diverse.

Wouldn’t it be great if life was that simple and it was possible to set a single goal and then attain it? In real life, we all do our best and and a number of different things result. Often results emerge that we weren’t expecting and didn’t intend.

Reading the paper I started to wonder if every big corporation has its own Stasi – controlling the workers. By contrast, the company I worked for contained such a very large number of “mavericks”, both people and groups, that it would seem absurd to suggest that people were unable to express their own beliefs.

In fact, that company, like all others I’d suggest, was a much more diverse and heterogenous mix of people and ways of doing things than management consultants who focus on ideas like “culture” would have us believe. (In some unkinder moods I’d suggest that if organisational culture didn’t exist, management consultants would have to invent it.) I am of the school of thought that believes that culture emerges fluidly and dynamically from the beliefs and activities of the people who work in a business. It’s not some intractable glue magically imposed top-down or somehow encoded in the papers of incorporation.

Why is this important? Because as we navigate the waters of sustainable business I think we need to be very careful to be inclusive. I think we need to welcome people of all backgrounds and cultures, including those that have worked in “big business”. We need to work with these people, not against them. In my experience, most people who work in large corporations have hearts just as big as those who work in sustainable business.

And we also mustn’t start to think that big business is somehow not open to change. That sounds much too much to me like the kind of thing I might say to my wife!

This approach itself creates barriers to change – it puts people’s backs up (just ask my wife), and it disempowers us – we stop believing in the possibility of change.

Big businesses, like any business, change fast once change starts. There are armies of “catalysts for change” at every level in every decent company – not just a few undercover agents.

The evidence for this is that few big companies would have survived in the turbulent years since I have been working without an incredible ability to develop and grow in response to change. Only the real dinosaurs suppress change – and these typically go the way of the dinosaurs.

I haven’t met Jane Lorand but I feel sure she’d concur.


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Champion of small business?

Just listened to an interesting interview with David Wei, CEO of Alibaba.com on the great www.smallbizpod.co.uk.

After a slightly slow start it was interesting to hear of his conversion from a believer in the power of large corporations (while an employee of B&Q, I think it was) to his belief in the power of small business. He gave the example of B&Q’s minimum size order policy meaning it missed out on some of the opportunities created by the Alibaba global SME market-place.

He was also asked about the issue of pollution (including carbon emissions, I assume) in China and immediately identified an opportunity to use Alibaba.com to improve the efficiency of freight transportation in China.

Speaking about founder Jack Ma’s statement about having no technology, no money, and no plan, David interpreted these as three virtues: having to match technology to customer needs, keeping entrepreneurial, and staying flexible.

Alex Bellinger, the presenter, explained that Alibaba.com IPO’d last year raising around $1.5 billion and shortly afterwards was valued at around $26bn (yes billion). So, I am not really sure it counts as a small business. And it’s exceptional in many ways, but for me it highlights the possibilities and opportunities of the new global, internet-enabled economic landscape. This is also the landscape in which sustainability opportunities lie.

And it’ll be interesting to see how they use their money and newly found confidence. Alibaba_local?


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Big business or small?

I said earlier that I am primarily interested in small and medium-sized businesses and what they can do. Does that mean that I am against big business, by which I really mean trans-national and multi-national corporations?

Of course not. I think big business is far too wide a term to rail against indiscriminately. I think there are good big businesses and probably bad ones too (the film “the Corporation”, based on Joel Bakan’s book, is a great awakener). And plenty in between.

I do think big business is different from small business. It seems to me that small business often starts from a position of “giving”. Many small businesses are set up initially to give something to someone else.

Big businesses seem to me to be small businesses that have grown (!), and often, somewhere along the way, they have also forgotten this central purpose. There are exceptions of course, and indeed corporate venturing in spin-offs or small teams often seems to try to reinstil this purpose.

But in general, this idea of serving the customer, or society, does seem to get lost. I don’t whether it’s because the founders left and all that remains is an echo of the original vision. Or maybe the pressures of being big and having so many stakeholders are just too distracting.

But really that’s why I like small business and think it’s important. It doesn’t have the reach, of course. But its flexibility, energy, and creativity make it very important as we face the opportunitities of sustainability. We need to innovate not just around products or services, but also around business models, and indeed even around the very purpose of business.

This seems to me to be something that small and medium-sized businesses are very well positioned to do.