In 578 AD, Shigemitsu Kongo, a renowned temple builder in Korea, made his way to Japan to build a temple which still stands in Osaka today. Buddhism, supported by the Empress, was growing quickly in Japan, and Kongo saw the opportunity to form a construction company knowing he’d have enough work for at least a few decades. His estimate was off by a few centuries and his construction company, Kongo Gumi, lasted 1,428 years and closed in 2009 over financing decisions rather than a lack of work.
Shigemitsu Kongo’s vision reflects the power of business to support and shape society as a whole. Society can be looked at as any group of individuals involved in persistent social interaction, with some shared authority, and cultural expectations. Shigemitsu Kongo found expression for his gifts and gathered a group – Kongo Gumi – to work within a larger society, for the benefit of all.
Civilized society has long served to enable individuals to build upon and benefit from collective tools: language and writing systems, evolving ideologies, reciprocal relationships, centralization, governance, and safety. Individuals build society, and society, in turn, shapes individuals. Each individual person matters because of the role they fill in creating and shaping society. Understanding the reciprocal relationship between individuals and society, virtuous organizations seek long term positive societal influence.
How businesses influence individuals and society
Businesses have the possibility for staying power and far reaching impact that individuals, on their own, do not have. As businesses have evolved over time, different phases in their evolution have emphasized different values. Early traditional business values, studied within the Industrial Revolution by sociologist Max Weber, were highly effective in helping organizations achieve efficient, reliable, smooth-flowing, and predictable output. This was, quite literally, collecting individuals previously working on farms and in the cottage industry, and helping them become a cog in a well-oiled business machine.
Thriving in stability, these business values were soon supplemented by the assertive notion of scale (more!) with the Second Industrial Revolution: profitability, competitiveness, bottom line results, and stretch targets. As this era of reach settled in, business centers did, too. Values began to focus on the collective: shared values and goals, cohesion, teamwork, and corporate commitment. Quantity and availability was no longer lone business differentiators, but a desire for business to provide added quality in product and in life, too. Business and society in the last quarter century has adopted values to fit the accelerated growth and depth of complexity: innovation, speed, entrepreneurship, and a swing back to the individual.
Beyond creating a powerful foundation for society, businesses provide a practical and direct community for their stakeholders, especially employees and customers, to be a part of. Businesses can create communities that positively impact individ-uals by bringing them into a group. Research indi-cates that being part of a group is good for the wellbeing of individuals. Being connected with others increases feelings of security and motivation. Business employees, who spend the majority of their waking hours working, can be positively influ-enced by a company culture that brings them together with a group of people working toward a common cause. Likewise, research shows that cus-tomers make purchases, in part, to buy into the symbolic community created by a company and product. In this way, customers, too, become part of a business’ community. Being part of a society, whether by geographical proximity or mission-driven affinity, can enable individuals to benefit in ways otherwise not possible.
How individuals build businesses and society
While businesses create a foundation society, individuals are the actors that construct the foundation. When individuals come together, as teams, congregations, or in formal organizations, they have a collective, societal power that no single individual possesses alone. As a collective of individuals, organizations have the power to create change and culture. Consider the major movements of the last century: civil rights, women’s rights, and the more recent #MeToo movement. These movements, composed of the collective efforts of individuals, would not have succeeded if a group of people had not come together to support the movement as a group.
Businesses, similarly, are successful because of the collective effort of groups of people. For example, a business could not create a brand, sell a product, or perform a service without the various departments who contribute to its success. As long as organizations have to interact with each other and the public, there will be a need for marketing. As long as there are resources to acquire and account for, there will be supply chains and finance. As long as there is something to be done, there will be a need for the skills of strategy along with the management of human capital to accomplish the mission. The efforts of one department of a company would not succeed without the collective work of the whole.
The virtuous organization perspective
Integrated in the fabric of society and businesses is community, which values both individuals and the collective. Virtuous organizations intentionally work to richly fill the role of creating community. Internally, virtuous organizations build a culture that carries the best of community: valuable relationships, opportunities for co-learning, mentoring and support, constructive feedback, diversity of opinion and ideas, collaboration, the intangible value of a trusted network, and on and on. Externally, virtuous organizations see themselves as a good social actor in the community in which they reside: aware of needs, considerate of impact, joining initiatives, stepping into leadership, providing resources, seeking feedback, collaborating, communicating, and on and on.
Virtuous organizations are preparing for the future by working to capture the best of historical and ongoing shifts in business values and society. They actively seek to build community for their stakeholders. They demonstrate what it looks like to practice in the tension of individual and societal level influence. They hold to the belief that every person matters. Businesses are now in the midst of the seismic business and societal shifts represented in the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence, speed of innovation for new products and services, the shift into full factory automation to and self automated vehicles. The tension virtuous organizations are asked to hold in these new, uncharted times is a classic and steady one: to consider and contribute to society while not losing sight of the individual.