In Essays, Innovation

While most of us think about “corporate purpose” as companies adopting programs to promote public good beyond what directly benefits their bottom lines, I wonder if a bigger, more complex transformation is at hand?

I’ve been an outspoken critic of the philosophy as it’s currently conceived (here and here), but what if believing in brands, whether as employees or consumers, is more like faith than any traditional ideas or language of business?

I’m going to make the case for seeing companies as religions instead of commercial enterprises. If I’m even partially right, it has massive implications for how they function and communicate.

OK, for starters, pull your camera back from the purpose movement and consider three bigger trends:

First, the organizational structure of companies is changing. Uber, Airbnb, and others in have forever changed our conceptions of employment in the geophysical world, much the same way that Facebook, Google, and other online platforms have redefined the roles of makers and consumers. The idea of “employee” is no longer a standard nor a function on which these businesses rely, at least not solely.

We now participate in the economy in “gigs,” loosely defined by various roles depending on circumstance. Ditto for assets; why own when you can rent? Companies can outsource almost everything from workers (who are now independent contractors or freelancers) to parts and products (Boeing outsourced entire sections of its 787, and Intel will finish its Aurora supercomputer using chips from other manufacturers).

If companies were once seen as owners of productive assets and arbiters of worker employment, they are becoming primarily owners of ideas — the intellectual property behind products or services — for which they aggregate the necessary people and tools to create.

Second, they’re all relying on the same resources. Automation, 3-D printing, and other digital technologies are reasonably available to any company that can pay for them. Digital platforms for supply chain, manufacturing processes, accounting, market research, and pretty much any other outsourced functions that were once owned and managed in-house are equally available, many times being offered to multiple clients from the same service providers.

Even the race to capture data, used for activities like targeting customers, vetting employees, and educating robots, tends to default to commonly known norms, as companies are seeking to answer the same questions by using many of the same sources of data (captured directly or bought from service providers). The premise that my robots will be better than yours is a fleeting proposition, as is your hope that you might target customers with more insights for more than a brief (or slight) moment of difference.

If companies were once seen as possessing competitive difference based on their operations, they’re becoming primarily owners of applications — the outcomes to which their ideas or IP are directed — for which they harness generic technology and put it to novel use.

Third, the “big” challenges they face are identical, too.

Every company faces the same meta challenges — climate change, employment diversity, community improvement — because all of us face them as individuals, too. There are 17 of them, according to the UN, and most companies set out to map and measure their progress at making improvements against those goals.

So, any company that produces pollution, which means every company should do its part to reduce it. They should hire or do business with a more diverse universe of people, and make management and leadership more diverse, too. If a company isn’t contributing money to education or community good deeds, it’s probably an outlier. These are all legitimate issues that need to be addressed, and we increasingly look to businesses as the engines for change. Doing what they do in response is also legitimate.

But it is purpose?

Think about it: Companies using the same people and same tools and technologies to address the same big picture outcomes.

That doesn’t sound like purpose in any way we’d understand the term. It sounds generic, like table stakes. Every company is trying to solve the same problems.

OK, now about that camera I mentioned earlier? Fool around with the focus a little and consider this:

Religions tend to be incredibly similar in terms of the “big” questions they try to solve — literally, they don’t get bigger than eternity and the meaning of the universe — and rely on the same pool of people and tools to address them, like source materials, roles and rituals for the faithful. A large percentage of the content the distribute is somewhat interchangeable, especially when it comes to the processes they promote for leading good lives.

What differentiates them is how they go about doing it, and whether or not someone finds it believable and applicable to their own life.

You could say that the purpose of religion is to give its adherents purpose.

Just imagine if religions went about purpose the way companies do.

“Thought leadership” pronouncements from leaders that all said the same things: “People need to live just lives,” or “heaven’s really important,”delivered at religion conferences filled with religious people or in media directed at the same audiences. Infographics on metrics of reduced sins committed and increased good works, and slick videos on the importance of the afterlife. Announcements of contributions to charities.

What would be missing? Reasons to believe that one approach was any different than another save for differences in language and allusions. Reasons to care.

A religion would be an “it is” instead of an “I am,” and it would go out of business before long.

Now, imagine if corporations went about purpose the way religions do. I can think of at least eight things that would be different:

First, a company would assert a new way of looking at the world and its problems and opportunities. It would describe unique outcomes and ways to achieve them, taking the generic questions that everyone asks and translating them into bespoke answers. Most importantly, it would present really big things in terms of personal experience and achievement in ways that no other company did. This would be its thought leadership.

Second, a company would talk to stakeholders differently than it talks to everyone else, since its members had asked for revealed wisdom. It would tell them things that substantiated its way of looking at the world and empowered its adherents to realize those truths. They would always be the audience that mattered first and the most; never taken for granted, or presumed to be “informed” of things going on beyond them since the things that mattered were being done by them. This would it its content.

Third, a company would be defined as much by what it didn’t do as by what it did. It would necessitate difficult decisions, not just strategic ones, because forsaking actions can be as potent an expression of purpose as actions and they are a tool to help stakeholders realize the meaning of their faith. This would be a binary thing, so no protestations of “we’re working to reduce XYZ.” This would be its business strategy.

Fourth, a company would have its own rituals. It would go far beyond events that stakeholders “attended” or could consume online as spectators; they would have active, emotional elements that gave participants a sense of involvement and co-ownership. It would unlock the meaning of its purpose by enabling its stakeholders to unlock aspects of themselves, and provide newbies with impactful visceral experiences. This would be its special events plan.

Fifth, a company would constantly reinterpret its message delivery, sticking to its ultimate destination but finding new ways to realize the journey. It would dare to share new, sometimes difficult or challenging content that added meaning or nuance to prior statements. It would anticipate the latest difficulties the faithful might face and preemptively address them, taking an active role in helping guide their experience. This would be its crisis communications.

Sixth, a company would speak primarily through its believers, encouraging them to be evangelists. It would never talk about what “it” did, since there is no IT, but rather about the actions of its stakeholders to realize its IP. It would transform every statement and policy into possible actions that could be taken by its adherents, as its ultimate purpose is only “solvable” by their actions (and for them, since the corporation has no destiny in the afterlife). This would be its process.

Seventh, a company wouldn’t shy away from imposing burdens on its stakeholders, in addition to expecting them to spread the faith. It would link expectations for longer work hours, more productivity, added volunteerism, etc., with greater access to revealed wisdom and participation in rituals. It would make annualized celebrations of working together truly holy events and artifacts like pins celebrating years of employment into true badges of meaning. This would be its loyalty.

Eighth, a company would always highlight work undone and shy away from celebrating too much success. It would identify a new step after every old one, providing its stakeholders (and potential new applicants) with a continuing journey as the central tenet of their participation. It would be on the lookout for ways to apply its content to new issues, new needs and new opportunities. This would be its branding.

Ultimately, there has to be more to corporate purpose than another marketing campaign, and even today’s most celebrating communications activities seem oddly detached from the transformations underway within and around companies.

And, oh yeah, the world is still on fire and it seems to be getting worse, so all that corporate purpose marketing is failing to achieve its purpose.

So why not change the purpose?

I wonder if acting more like a religion would yield business plans that were more honest, give people things in which they could believe, and just maybe deliver outcomes that truly changed the world (or at least changed the lives of believers).

Maybe the remit for corporate purpose is faith?

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