How can technological change serve society through purposeful business?

This third session of the on-line British Academy Future of the Corporation – Purpose Summit was anchored in an interview with Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft and, as became clear, a living embodiment of the importance of purpose to business.

He conveyed a strong commitment to the resilience and survival of the corporation, and the place of purpose within this.  Early on, he stated “A company should not outlive its social purpose.  Its social contract should be sustained.”  His final remark, in response to a question about what he wanted to achieve at Microsoft, was that measure of the contribution of leaders to their companies was that they left them with the institutional strength to outlive them.  These two observations together add up to a compelling view of the role of the leader to ensure that the company’s purpose, in terms of what it provides to society at large, creates value for society.  By implication, strategy is about adapting to ensure that the company’s purpose continues to achieve this.

Nadella, in common with  Alan Pole of Unilever in an earlier, reflected on the importance of a company’s purpose in relation to meeting he challenges of the climate crisis and inequality.  He spoke of the need for economic growth, but that it needs to serve everyone, to be anchored in popular trust, and to be sustainable – “you can’t have growth and break the planet.”

Nadella spoke repeatedly about the need to earn and maintain the license to operate, a particular concern for the very largest technology companies.  They need to be more sophisticated in avoid the harm that is a consequence of their scale – not least to keep regulators and would be regulators off their backs.  He spoke of the need for companies like Microsoft look upstream of themselves and see what they can do to ensure that through an embedded culture and value system of their own they do what they can to shape their external environment so that “we can be customers of good stuff”.

He was asked whether the pressures of quarterly reporting imposed short term pressures on Microsoft and compromised its corporate purpose and own long term strategy.  He acknowledged that quarterly reporting was a constraint but only insofar as it forced the company to explain what it did and why. He explained that he had no difficulty, for example, justifying to his shareholders why Microsoft invested in local housing projects in Washington since the company need to support its wider workforce, not just highly paid software engineers but also people in blue collar service roles keeping the local economy operating.

Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee and former minister, Greg Clark, had to follow this tour de force.  He reflected on the how the Covid-19 pandemic had accelerated some technology trends such as video-conferencing but also commented on the degree to which the recent experience surrounding the popular responses to apps to tracking infected patients had highlighted the importance of face to face contact in service activities.

The third contributor to this session was Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blatavnik School of Government at Oxford who focussed on the role of government in regulation and the limitation of self regulatory codes in prevent a “race to the bottom”.  It was apparent that her underlying thesis is that, notwithstanding the sense of purpose adopted by some business leaders, regulatory intervention is necessary  – citing as her example the need for Robert Peel to secure the legislation to ensure widespread adoption of the standards in factories that Robert Own had pioneered.  She also highlighted the need for appropriate regulation, in that the cheap solution is not always the best (using the example of the alternative approaches to preventing oil spills: the inexpensive solution of a fining system was ineffective whereas the policeable and expensive solution of requiring tankers to have a double skin has been highly effective).  In answer to questions later, she also argued that governments should be prepared to use their power as lenders of last resort in the pandemic to secure responsible and purposeful behaviour by business – an answer that unwittingly brought us full circle back the issue addressed by Nadella of the license to operate.

1993 Tomorrow’s Company paper and latest paper for Cranfield Renewing Capitalism project

Two papers setting out some of the key ideas in the framework have been added to the site.  A paper written for Tomorrow’s Company, when in its initial phase under the sponsorship of the Royal Society of Arts, can be found on the Origins page.  A recent paper written for the Cranfield Institute’s Renewing Capitalism initiative can be found on the home page.