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Written by Loughlin Hickey, Senior Adviser to A Blueprint for Better Business

Last week I attended an “Un-Seminar” produced by Jericho Chambers on behalf of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). It was entitled The Future of Work is Human. There were a fascinating and stimulating number of presentations and interventions from people with a wide range of backgrounds. Well done to Jericho Chambers and the CIPD for organising such a rich debate.

It was great to see the human person at the centre of the thinking – with recognition from many of the speakers that the reality we face day by day is that the human person is seen as a product. We are seen as raw materials prepared in school to be fed into the machine of work. There we undertake tasks and earn money so that we can become the consumers of products and services that we are programmed to desire. Finally, we are discarded when we are no longer needed or can be replaced by a cheaper and more compliant alternative. We need to challenge this “reality” because it is not pre-determined. The human person is the purpose and not a means to a financial outcome.

A clever idea from the organisers was to ask each attendee to complete the sentence: “If the Future of Work is Human, the question I think we should be asking is…” and the answers were written on our meeting badges. My answer was; “…how do we build humanity into the structures, processes and tools of work – both for those in work and for those that make that work meaningful?” It is not likely to win catchphrase of the year not least because it needs a bit of explanation. My starting point is that we need something practical and sustainable (embedded in what we do every day) and a change of mindset (we seek meaning in work which comes from the work itself and from the greater good that work enables).

If we start with the mindset change we can re-imagine organisations by thinking about their role in society – their purpose. Here are two formulations that might help to think about it in terms of business.

The first is “Business is a set of relationships that together enable a business to be sustainably prosperous. These relationships are inspired and sustained by the purpose of the business. ”

Another formulation might be “Business is an institution that produces people of character. The success of that character building is judged by the goods and services that are produced and the manner in which they are produced and sold.”

Neither formulation militates against making profits; to the contrary they expose the essential elements of the value chain that enables profits to be made. Each also helps to sustain profit by avoiding the character flaws that so often create the risks that grow and explode to destroy accumulated profits.

Most importantly either formulation focusses attention on people outcomes that lead to business outcomes, and allows our creativity to be channeled in the right direction. What business would not want to have engaged and motivated employees eager to innovate, suppliers who are both reliable and part of the innovation process, customers who are loyal advocates who acknowledge the value of what is produced and feedback to make it better, and communities who welcome production in their community? These outcomes flow from enabling each of those relationships to feel that they are respected, the opportunity to co-create in some way and share, directly or indirectly in the prosperity. In short, the formulations enable the greatest number of people to care about the long term prosperity of the business. This is the challenge and opportunity to business – to understand that the purpose of purpose is to stimulate respect and nurture these motivations.

This is where the second half of the equation comes in. Having made work meaningful through a purpose that makes work worthwhile in the eyes of the worker and society how is it sustained in the business? So in practical terms do the structures, processes and tools that business uses to drive efficiency support that purpose or undermine its authenticity? Do my hiring, development and reward practices emphasise character or compliance with rules and commands? Do my procurement policies emphasise subservience or nurturing quality and innovation? Do my customer policies seek to produce goods and services of true rather than “apparent” value to the customer? Does my work with communities reflect the intelligence and capabilities of the organisation and what the community needs or is it paternalistic charity that is at the fringes of the business? Does the way I produce my goods and services reflect a short term view of my right to consume or a longer term obligation to conserve for future generations?

I acknowledge that this mindset shift accompanied by actions that make it real sets a high bar but this is about action and impact; business and society both need to see the positive impact of a mindset change towards humanity. Setting a high bar is good for the positive competitive instincts of the best businesses as it raises the gap between the good and the also rans. It is a race to the top in setting high standards and raising the need for character as well as action. And it is about making dreams and aspirations a business reality.

I am pleased to say that we do see businesses making both this mindset shift and taking the actions required to make it tangible and sustainable. This is not just an aspiration but a living experiment, with all the challenges and breakthrough successes that experiments bring. And the “technology and techniques” of experimentation are maturing and are being shared to encourage others to contribute their resources and energy to get there quicker. This battle of hearts and minds and outcomes can be won.

Just as we re-imagine business lets also re-imagine the other organisations and institutions that serve society, not least in education. All can contribute to building strong relationships and communities that provide mutual benefit and common good, through growing people of character and citizenship.