‘Social changes will have a profound impact on the way we do business’
In the future, it will be harder to build organizations that create lasting value and make a deep, profound impact. Technology has made it much easier to build nimble organizations that come and go, but those organizations are not around long enough to build durable communities or tackle lasting issues. To address larger societal problems, such as global warming, we need companies that become social institutions. Those organizations help create infrastructures at the city level, contribute to international regulations and change consumer behavior so that their innovative ideas can make an impact. Because they are durable, they take responsibility and have a stake in real change.
Social changes — such as international migration and the consequences of climate change — will also have a profound impact on the way we do business. Managers will have to collaborate effectively with a very diverse set of constituents — internationally, across sectors and with informal groups like communities or activists. Environmental problems will become imminent and tangible. In the short term, most organizations can make profits without responding in earnest to the call for sustainability.
But in the long run, those organizations will struggle as environmental changes sooner or later translate into market forces that affect their financial viability.
We need to educate our students to see the bigger picture, beyond how to simply be an effective general manager. Students need to recognize that if their community has social issues, those are problems that their company will have to deal with eventually. Down the road, those problems could make it hard to find qualified staff, or they could generate political opposition to the company. We need to teach students about public policy, globalization and social and cultural dynamics, and we need to equip them with skills for engaging with these issues as part of their jobs. Business schools must focus on developing students to become stronger individuals in all aspects of life.
At the same time, we should not get carried away with notions that the future will be completely different from the past. Yes, technology has been very swift, and social, political and cultural changes have swept through the world. But human nature has not really changed. What we have to teach our students are fundamental skills that will allow them to recognize changes and adjust to them. That includes effective collaboration and decision making, maintaining integrity for oneself and for one’s company, and forging teams and organizations that are larger than their parts. If we focus on these enduring qualities and skills, we will help tomorrow’s managers solve the specific problems they will face in this fast-moving world.
Klaus Weber is an associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, where his teaching and research is focused on globalization, the environmental movement and corporate social responsibility.