Companies move faster when more people are in charge?

Society plays an increasingly large role in shaping business trends. By embracing social stakeholders, like the Occupy movement, companies can learn what lies ahead before their competitors.

Don Ryan/AP
Occupy protesters block an entrance to the Port of Longview in Longview, Wash., Dec. 12, 2011. By embracing social movements, such as the anti-Wall Street movement, companies can gain valuable insights into how society will shape business.

Recently, a friend and I debated how companies should respond to the "Occupy" movement. His point was that companies should ignore the Occupiers and let Mother Nature (i.e., winter) end the existence of the tent cities. My point was that business should embrace the ethos of the movement because active engagement with stakeholders can enable companies to move faster.

He was incredulous: "You want companies to capitulate?"

Not in the least, I replied. I want them to succeed.

Occupy is the tip of society's spear to prod and challenge traditional business and, in the process, it's turning conventional wisdom on its head. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians? Too many cooks spoil the broth? On the contrary, a few companies have discovered that more chefs have led to faster decisions.

In an age of social media and, more important, an increasingly activist society, these companies are working closely with many of their stakeholders: consumers, environmentalists, communities, and so on. This interchange gives the companies greater insights into the change needed for tomorrow – a kind of early warning system that will enable them to act more quickly and decisively than their peers to capture new revenue as the situation on the ground changes.

This spear has long been forming. To explain what's changed, let's go back 30 years. Japanese companies offered American consumers more reliable, smarter-designed, and lower-priced autos, semiconductors, and electronics than their American counterparts could. Before US businesses knew it, the quality movement was changing the rules of commerce.

In the 1990s, commerce bore witness to another "supertrend": business process reengineering, where companies reorganized themselves to become more efficient. Both the quality and BPR movements were driven by business. Then something unexpected happened.

Let's call it the "society strikes back" movement, of which Occupy is the current exemplar event. When the globalization movement came along a few years later, it was pushed primarily by business, but (arguably) with a slice of society in the form of developing world entrepreneurs.

Society played a larger role in the dot-com revolution (the roots of the Internet can be found in ARPANET, a networking experiment from the military, which is an extension of society). By contrast, the sustainability movement was sparked by society (Rachel Carson, the Brundtland Commission, environmentalism, etc.) and colored by it. In short, society has played a growing role in challenging how business creates value over the past 30 years.

With its voice amplified by social media (and popular media, too), society has become a formidable business stakeholder.

So what does this mean for industry?

Businesses that value nimbleness will move faster by involving, not ignoring, stakeholders in decisionmaking processes. Companies that build the bridges to bring society's input into the room today will likely be the ones to receive the early read on the supertrends to come.

These companies, including your competitors, will probably become more nimble than their peers in the future.

What will you choose to do?

– Eric Lowitt, research fellow at the RoseMont Institute for Transformational Leadership, is the author of "The Future of Value," a book about sustainability and business competition. 


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