“What felled mighty Kodak was not Sony, Canon or even Apple – fierce competitors though they were. Rather, Kodak was brought first to dismissal from the Dow Jones, and then eventually to its knees, not by competitors but its owners, the shareholders. Make no mistake: This was a suicide.”

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"Nothing personal, it's just business"

We may not have done it consciously, but we have the kinds of businesses that we have chosen. Perhaps it is as much by default as by intention, but we have really never asked businesses to behave as we expect other persons to behave – with some meaningful obligations toward the common good, or at least common decency.  For most of us, even expecting business to do anything but “make money” is almost a novel idea, perhaps a little naïve – quaint even. 


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A New Role for Business


In many places, businesses are often associated with exploitation and even bullying behavior.  Some of my friends see businesses as consumed with only one aim – profit – and choose to enter other fields. To a large degree, these observers are probably right. Or at least they have been…until now.  

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Telos and the Turning Tide of Business

As I began my career in business some thirty years ago, I received a bit of wise advice from John Wilson, a former colleague and mentor. “Chris, don’t try to make business nice! It isn’t nice,” he said, “…but it can be good.”  For a long time, with each passing budget decision and strategic priority I saw determined, my skepticism grew against John’s suggestion that business could be “good,” and the idea all but vanished in the haze. Then, five or six years ago, I noticed an unmistakable shift. And like turning tide, this form of organization we know as a business, which for generations has been the primary agent of the ‘shareholder’, began to become more and more an agent of employees and customers to serve their priorities for social impact.


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A Positive Populism?

For businesses that have been used to doing whatever they want, the invention of social media has introduced a novel (and rather unwelcome) complexity to the work of commerce. There was a time when the people had to march in the street carrying placards to shut down the factory. Now they just pick up their smartphone, join a few thousand or million others, and commercial freedom can be halted by an on-line petition or unfavourable trend on social media. And with instability and populist movements exploding across traditionally stable democracies, even the political classes are finding a remarkable agility to create and enact protective legislation in the face of voter pressure.  There are now a million ‘Davids’ who, armed with little more than the slings of social media, can mount a campaign of military precision from any place, anywhere.  Like the giants of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels, product and pricing strategy, often long analyzed and painstakingly crafted, can be turned on its ear by a momentary firestorm of trending displeasure.

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