The Twenty First Century Organisation

I was introduced to the Business as an Agent of World Benefit project yesterday. Rather than follow the current discourse of bashing capitalism and corporations for the damage they do to the world, the project takes a refreshing approach and inquires into how business can act as an agent for positive change in the world, while also sustaining its own profitability.

Sounds crazy – I know, but step back for a second and think about how much sense it makes. Big corporations are usually full of intelligent people; and intelligent people know that destroying the environment and squeezing an ever increasing proportion of the population into relative poverty is not a strategy for sustainable growth – or even survival. Moreover, who is better placed to make a difference on an issue like climate change than a company with the brightest engineers, billions of dollars to back them, and the selfish motive of healthy profits if they succeed?

David Cooperrider has outlined the three characteristics of model organisations he sees for the twenty first century:

  • Organisations provide a domain for the elevation of strengths – they provide the processes, tools, and mission for individuals to realise and grow their own strengths;
  • They enable the concentration of strengths – connecting different strengths in what Ken Gergen calls “an ever-expanding domain of relatedness”. Cooperrider argues there is a multiplier effect to connecting diverse strengths, and organisation offer a platform for more and more strengths to be connected with increasing potential and novel results;
  • Organisations should refract strengths outward into society. In a dawning age of collaboration, knowledge has no owner and the days of hoarding intellectual property are coming to an end. The twenty first century organisation will pride itself on sharing its ideas and designs in a collaborative way, acting as a lightening rod for further innovation.

Sound far fetched? It might be closer than you think. Melotte, a Belgian manufacturing firm is making waves with its digital 3D printing technology. Led by Mario Fleurinck, the company is using cutting-edge technology to rapidly scale down costs of manufacturing. The result is an eightfold decrease in carbon emissions (numbers to impress any environmentalist) and a revenue growth of 20% per quarter (something for the businessman too). Rather than pursuing a classic balanced scorecard however, Melotte has defined a new set of metrics. These not only highlight the root causes of the company’s success, but provide a framework for the company’s continued growth to benefit society in a much larger way.

Ilja Heitlager, Information Officer at Schuberg Philis told of an inquiry into what drove his company’s success. It led to the IT provider bucking the trend and doing away with a generalist call centre, in favour of employees building deep knowledge of the systems of a small number of clients. Giarte, an Outsourcing survey provider has found Schubert Philis to have the highest customer satisfaction rating in the Netherlands for the last six years, with an incredible 100% of clients saying they would recommend the company to others. By connecting the knowledge within the organisation Schuberg Philis came up with a model that made redundant the challenges they faced previously. Interestingly, the same approach to change has led them to agree a mission to build an organisation that, rather than focusing on shareholder value, “will make their children proud”.

Diana Whitney earlier suggested that “Appreciative Inquiry draws people who’s values are in-congruent with the old methods”. If Schuberg Philis’ and Melotte’s financial results are anything to go by, we may see a lot more organisations discovering the power of a new set of values. Welcome to the 21st century!

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“Strengths perform, but also, strengths transform”

I am spending this week at the 5th World Appreciative Inquiry Conference in Ghent, Belgium. Appreciative Inquiry is a philosophy of change, based on the belief that the best way to enhance the capability of a system is to focus on what works well in that system currently; and to engage the whole system in the co-creation a new way of working.

David Cooperrider, father of the field gave the key note speech on the first day, offering a personal perspective on some of the most recent developments in the field.

A consistent theme in Cooperrider’s work over the last twenty five years has been the need to move away from a defecit-based view of change. Playing on Einstein’s truism that a problem has never been solved at the same level of consciousness that the problem was created, Cooperrider offered a corollary for organisations, suggesting that the greatest problems an organisation faces are never “solved”, rather, they are “eclipsed, made irrelevant, or saturated in strength”. Rather than identifying problems and proposing solutions to fix them, Cooperrider argues there is much greater value in identifying strengths and growing them to the point that the organisation evolves past the problems of yesterday.

Cooperrider drew on Peter Drucker’s definition of leadership, as “creating an alignment of strengths that renders a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”

Inspirational, thoughtful, packed with practical examples, the session was a call-to-arms to scale up the generative power of AI to match the demands the world is facing today.