From a firm handshake to a social media ‘like’: Covid has sped up a rethinking about what good business means

The idea of ‘good business’ was traditionally sealed with a handshake – the firmer the better. This gesture perfectly captured the essence of the deal; one that made sense to all parties. It represented a mutual recognition between buyer and seller that there was value in the transaction – a value usually expressed in terms of mutual monetary gain to the exclusion of most others. Businessmen would usually characterise this gain as creating shareholder value.

This perspective on what constitutes value may well be shifting. The last two decades have witnessed some truly tumultuous times, and these events have had an impact on how business is perceived. The fall of Wall Street cast business in the role of the Big Bad Wolf and the Occupy Wall Street movement expressed what ordinary people felt about big business.

Social media has given people unconnected with business an influential voice on how businesses should be run. The Covid pandemic has shaken the status quo and exposed the fault lines of privilege and inequality. It has also shown how interconnected we all are. Factories, plantations, construction sites, tourist hubs, middle class homes all depend on the labour of the migrant from the poorest and remotest corners of India. Their wellbeing affects the wellbeing of us all.

The pandemic has also shown up the ravages we inflict upon Nature and what a different world it can be, if we suspend our thoughtless daily activities. All these events could well lead to a rethinking of what good business means.

Such a reappraisal has been in the works for a while. Last year, one of the most influential business groups in the US, the Business Roundtable, reappraised its longstanding ‘shareholder primacy’ mantra in favour of a commitment towards issues such as the environment and workers’ wellbeing alongside their pursuit of profits.

Changing demographics are changing expectations. For younger employees, in particular, ‘good business’ is about more than their pay packet. 70% of millennials globally expect their employers to focus on societal or mission-driven issues.

According to research by LinkedIn, employees under 35 consider corporate purpose a priority; 40% would ‘consciously’ seek to work with companies with a (stated) purpose. Consumers too are increasingly demonstrating that their idea of ‘good business’ extends beyond product and price; 81% claim to be willing to pay more for eco-friendly products, while 83% are either interested in making changes or have already made changes in their lives to address the conservation of energy.

Sustainable funds (those focussing on environmental, social and governance issues) continue to attract a premium, reflecting the economic logic of this new form of ‘good business’.

India, with its chaotic democracy, its large young population and its constant tension between the pulls of development and the tugs of sustainability, is a fertile ground for relooking at what constitutes good business. Our 75th anniversary represents the perfect occasion to reflect on this approach and to widen the debate. As part of our anniversary celebrations we will be conducting research, hosting discussions and listening to citizens in India and beyond about their idea of ‘good business’.

What do people – young and not so young – believe to be the fundamentals of ‘good business’? If you were choosing a career, what would a ‘good’ offer represent? What sort of company would you invest your hope and your money in? What does a Facebook ‘like’ really mean for consumers, employees and investors when they engage with businesses? I believe these questions deserve to be discussed, debated and acted upon. Let the ‘good business’ conversation begin.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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