Great companies think differently.

How Great Companies Think Differently

by Rosabeth Moss Kanter     

Artwork: Sarah Morris, Midtown—HBO/Grace, 1999, Gloss household paint on canvas, 213.4 × 213.4 cm

It’s time that beliefs and theories about business catch up with the way great companies operate and how they see their role in the world today. Traditionally, economists and financiers have argued that the sole purpose of business is to make money—the more the better. That conveniently narrow image, deeply embedded in the American capitalist system, molds the actions of most corporations, constraining them to focus on maximizing short-term profits and delivering returns to shareholders. Their decisions are expressed in financial terms.

I say convenient because this lopsided logic forces companies to blank out the fact that they command enormous resources that influence the world for better or worse and that their strategies shape the lives of the employees, partners, and consumers on whom they depend. Above all, the traditional view of business doesn’t capture the way great companies think their way to success. Those firms believe that business is an intrinsic part of society, and they acknowledge that, like family, government, and religion, it has been one of society’s pillars since the dawn of the industrial era. Great companies work to make money, of course, but in their choices of how to do so, they think about building enduring institutions. They invest in the future while being aware of the need to build people and society.

In this article, I turn the spotlight on this very different logic—a social or institutional logic—which lies behind the practices of many widely admired, high-performing, and enduring companies. In those firms, society and people are not afterthoughts or inputs to be used and discarded but are core to their purpose. My continuing field research on admired and financially successful companies in more than 20 countries on four continents is the basis for my thinking about the role of institutional logic in business.

Institutional logic holds that companies are more than instruments for generating money; they are also vehicles for accomplishing societal purposes and for providing meaningful livelihoods for those who work in them. According to this school of thought, the value that a company creates should be measured not just in terms of short-term profits or paychecks but also in terms of how it sustains the conditions that allow it to flourish over time. These corporate leaders deliver more than just financial returns; they also build enduring institutions.

Rather than viewing organizational processes as ways of extracting more economic value, great companies create frameworks that use societal value and human values as decision-making criteria. They believe that corporations have a purpose and meet stakeholders’ needs in many ways: by producing goods and services that improve the lives of users; by providing jobs and enhancing workers’ quality of life; by developing a strong network of suppliers and business partners; and by ensuring financial viability, which provides resources for improvements, innovations, and returns to investors.

In developing an institutional perspective, corporate leaders internalize what economists have usually regarded as externalities and define a firm around its purpose and values. They undertake actions that produce societal value—whether or not those actions are tied to the core functions of making and selling goods and services. Whereas the aim of financial logic is to maximize the returns on capital, be it shareholder or owner value, the thrust of institutional logic is to balance public interest with financial returns.

Institutional logic should be aligned with economic logic but need not be subordinate to it. For example, all companies require capital to carry out business activities and sustain themselves. However, at great companies profit is not the sole end; rather, it is a way of ensuring that returns will continue. The institutional view of the firm is thus no more idealized than is the profit-maximizing view. Well-­established practices, such as R&D and marketing, cannot be tied to profits in the short or long runs, yet analysts applaud them. If companies are to serve a purpose beyond their business portfolios, CEOs must expand their investments to include employee empowerment, emotional engagement, values-based leadership, and related societal contributions.

Business history provides numerous examples of industrialists who developed enduring corporations that also created social institutions. The Houghton family established Corning Glass and the town of Corning, New York, for instance. The Tata family established one of India’s leading conglomerates and the steel city of Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. That style of corporate responsibility for society fell out of fashion as economic logic and shareholder capitalism came to dominate assumptions about business and corporations became detached from particular places. In today’s global world, however, companies must think differently.

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