Reimagining business

When Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, little could he have imagined it would become a phenomenon attracting 600 million users worldwide


David Sproul believes this example of private sector innovation to stimulate massive societal impact is why ‘reimagining our businesses’ demands our sustained attention.

Business plays a fundamental role in imagining, and indeed creating, the society of the future.

Most innovation that is good for society is also good news for business. Beyond this, the pioneering spirit of entrepreneurs and innovators has a direct ability to help build a better society, and enhance the quality of human lives. I believe that this should be the ultimate purpose of every business. Generalised statements about the purpose of business outside of profit are no substitute for the rigour of an enterprise defining its particular contribution to society through its core activities. 

Like many business leaders, I am often asked how I think the future will pan out. As we watch the 21st century unfold, I believe we have a fantastic opportunity for business to play a key role as an agent for societal change.

The benefits to society of great business innovations can initially be underestimated and unforeseen. For example, the innovators of smartphones did not imagine them as a catalyst for freedom and change, but that’s what this technology has the potential to achieve in Africa. Unilever may not have set out to create a company that would protect millions of low-income consumers from life-threatening diseases through a simple water purifier device. When William Welch Deloitte undertook the first ‘independent audit’ in history, of the Great Western Railway, could he have imagined that his pioneering spirit was laying the foundations of assurance and trust between private enterprises, and between business and wider society?

I am convinced that business has been, is now, and always should be playing a major role in envisioning and effecting the massive changes taking place in our constantly changing global society, driving towards a better future for everyone. This is because business pioneers innovation and innovation drives the change that enables the realisation of society’s goals. It is hard to imagine society without business, without the breakthroughs in technology, trade, information management and organisational development that business has facilitated. The World Economic Forum describes innovation as the Twelfth Pillar of its Global Competitiveness Index. ‘In the long run, standards of living can be enhanced only by technological innovation. . . This requires an environment that is conducive to innovative activity, supported by both the public and the private sectors.’

I believe that creating such an environment begins with fostering a culture of receptiveness to new ideas and fresh approaches to problems. Entrepreneurial spirit is as decisive a part of success in large, established multi-national corporations as it is in energetic start-ups. Freedom of speech and association is essential to a flourishing social and political culture. Likewise, to anticipate and even shape the marketplace — driven by the needs and desires of a changing society — we need the conditions that enable creativity in our organisations. We must explicitly create these conditions to invite the emergence of new ideas.

Since being elected as the new CEO of Deloitte, I have asked our people to consciously weave innovation into the day to day life of the firm. Through a dedicated programme geared towards fostering innovation, including events such as iCafes and iWeeks, our online iSpace and the physical space of our iZone, we are encouraging our talent to think and act differently. Our iZone literally enables clients to step out of their comfort zones, encouraging them to come up with new ideas and accelerated solutions. The Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London Business School will specifically consider how innovation and entrepreneurship contributes both to economic development in emerging markets and to economic recovery and growth in the developed world. Since the turn of the year, we have witnessed what the BBC calls ‘the biggest upheaval the world has seen since 1989’, facilitated by social media networking. Less than a decade ago this would have been inconceivable. If Twitter, Facebook and other social networking tools have helped to ‘revolutionalise’ the Middle East, is there any end to what business can help achieve in society as we set our organisations on course for the next 50 years? As the world ‘shifts East’, the sheer level of enterprise in China and India is a case in point.

Business is about envisaging the change we want to see in the world and working towards implementing that change. We must open more eyes to opportunity and re-imagine business innovation as the ignition key for a flourishing future society. By re-examining the purpose of our businesses, we can empower and enable our talent. Only through fostering entrepreneurial spirit can we enable investment in innovation to secure a robust and agile future for our own corporations and, ultimately, to inspire transformational global change.

This article was taken from Business Strategy Review, for the latest business thinking from all London Business School faculty:

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