Book challenges the ontology of contemporary business

It was a rare and surreal spectacle at the UCT Graduate School of Business recently where the launch of a book that challenges the ontology of contemporary business began with a play. Giraffe and Hyena discussed the need for business for the betterment of society – business driven by values.

The dialogue between the two animals – acted out by Sean Gabriel Smith (Giraffe) and Nicole Hetz (Hyena) – is the first chapter of the new free-to-download book, Values Based Leadership in Business Model Innovation written by Professor Walter Baets, director of the business school, and his wife Erna Oldenboom. The book aims to challenge business as usual in a way that is easily understood, and more accessible to a wider audience, while exploring new possibilities, new ways of being in business.

“Business with the sole purpose of turning a profit has caused a mess, and now it is time to consider the possibilities of changing business to be for society, rather than placing it before society,” said Baets. “We need a new ontology. And all ontology is, is a pair of glasses, a chosen way of seeing the world with chosen limitations. And the way you see the world influences your behaviour in it.”

To better illustrate the idea of changing the way we see the world, Baets recounted the 19th century story, written by Edwin A. Abbott, about a fictional two-dimensional world called Flatland.

“The inhabitants of Flatland are squares and circles and triangles and numerous shapes, but all appear only as lines,” said Baets. “One day, Square sees something that changes the way he thinks about this two-dimensional world: a dot appears in-front of him, transforms into a line, then into a dot again and disappears. Square realises he’s seen a sphere move through the two-dimensional plane of Flatland, and posits that a third dimension indeed exists.”

“What happens to Square when he tells the other Flatlanders of his discovery? They cut him up in little bits. That is how we treat people with new ideas that challenge the way we have come to understand the world. And business is no different.”

Baets and Oldenboom argue in the book that instead of being solely profit driven, business should be guided by values. They ask questions such as: As a business, what value do you add to society? What is your purpose for existing? And, if your business goes bankrupt tomorrow, what is society losing? They argue that if a business cannot answer these questions, it has no real reason to exist.

They believe that if businesses were to be driven by values, organisations would become ‘healthier’ and the wider society would benefit from economies that have inclusive growth knitted into their very fabric.
“It all begins within organisations,” agrees Oldenboom. “The more positive the inner-workings of an organisation are the more positive the influence the organisation has on communities and society at large.
“And one of the most positive values is the determination to serve others, rather than our own agenda.” She said that today’s business leaders seem to bring up their children in one way, yet conduct business in a contradictory, almost hypocritical way.

According to Baets, the shift to incorporate values into business, or to place them at the forefront of business thinking, is not an overnight exercise. It requires much work.

“And our book, which comes with a workbook to help with the practical application of the ideas in it, takes a holistic view of an organisation and guides those business leaders who want to change the way they do business for the better to do so successfully and cleverly,” he said. To nurture the process, the book includes a tool, which guides business leaders throughout the transition to healthier organisations.

Baets and Oldenboom will also be running a two-day master class at the GSB this August that will take participants through this process. The class is called Full Colour Thinking because, said Baets, this captures something of what is required in the minds of leaders.

“We need to stop thinking in black and white, in narrowly defined paradigms, and expand our thinking to include a multitude of perspectives and colours.”

Oldenboom said that it starts with identifying the values, translating them into personal individual development and behaviour within the organisation, and then reorganising the business around the adopted behaviour. The most difficult part of the shift is the personal development aspect of it.

Questions were raised among the audience that led to interesting debate. They revolved around whether this new way of business was not veering away from the fundamental reasoning behind business, that of making a profit; what role the humanities have to play as the focus in South Africa moves away from discussions about values – housed mostly in the humanities – towards those around improving only science and mathematics in the hopes of building the economy; the role of spirituality and the church in the transformation of business; new metrics that incorporate values; and what the outcome will be if more businesses change to be like the giraffe – sharing and responsible – in a world that will always have hyenas – savage and selfish.

“There is a spiritual aspect to what we’re talking about, and whether the church should play a role in it is a difficult matter to discuss, but this is not new thinking,” said Baets. “Before the 80s, business did take a humanitarian approach but that changed when everyone wanted rather to get rich. We have forgotten the humanitarian approach exists.”

He said that the Global Compact PRME (Principles of Responsible Management Education) project of which the GSB is a signatory is trying to bring business back into humanitarian approaches. The GSB will be one of 20 business schools from around the world at this year’s Global Compact Summit.

“All we are saying is that what is required is a more balanced eco-system,” he said. “Like it is in the Kruger National Park, there are hyenas and giraffe and lion and antelope, and all is balanced. In business today, however, there are far more hyenas than what is good for the world.”

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UCT Graduate School of Business


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