[Published in SCMS Journal of Indian Management, Apr-Jun 2011]
The ability for an extended gaze beyond the past and present into the future is one of the most important qualities of a visionary strategist and leader. And the emerging trends in strategy and leadership are tending towards highly futuristic approach. An effective strategy must be able to discern the future possibilities and provide a road-map for converting them into profitable business opportunities. This article is an attempt to understand the nature of the possibilities and opportunities lying in the womb of the future, viewed in the modern corporate context.
The Quantum Leap Ahead
When we examine the evolutionary process of nature, we will find that she marches ahead not only through incremental variations in the same genre, type or species but also by quantum leaps, which create new types or species. This brings us to the question what is the nature of the quantum leap which Nature is contemplating for humanity and earth? This question cannot be dismissed as one of the fads of the new age philosophy because it has practical implications for corporate strategy.
As indicated earlier, charting a path to the future is one of the aims of strategy. The trends in technology, demographics, life-styles and values are some of the important indicators for understanding the opportunities and possibilities in the womb of the future. But when the future change is not merely an incremental or even a large extension of the present but a quantum leap into a new and unmanifest dimension of life or consciousness, then understanding the essence of this new change acquires immense importance. Most of the trend-setters in strategic thinking have perceived the fact that the future change will be a discontinuous quantum leap from the present. Here are a few statements from some of the leading corporate strategist:
“You can’t look at the future as a continuation of the past—-because the future is going to be different.
“We have to stop trying to figure out what to do by looking at what we have done”.
“If you think you’re good you are dead. Success in the past has no implication for success in the future—The formulas for yesterday’s success are almost guaranteed to be formulas for future failure.
However none of the management thinkers seem to have a clear perception of the nature of the future world. Most of the secular and management thinkers of the west consider the future as something inherently unpredictable. The common idea or belief among management thinkers is that no one can predict the future but can create or shape a future out of emerging opportunities. As Gary Hamel states “The big challenge in creating the future is not predicting the future—-Instead, the goal is to try to imagine a future that is possible¾the future that you can create”. (Hamel .G, 1998) But the eastern spiritual thought believed that there is an intuition in the spiritual consciousness of our soul which can discern the future intention and plan of Nature for humanity or the world or the possibilities which Nature is trying to bring forward or manifest in the future. If this eastern belief is true, then the perceptions of spiritual thinkers on the future can possibly provide a better view of the future possibilities than management thinker. But how to test the validity of this eastern belief or spiritual intuition? It has to be viewed in the context of present trends. If a spiritual intuition helps in a deeper and better understanding of the essence or patterns of the present and emerging tends, then it has atleast a tentative validity.
In the Realms of Human Psyche
What are the major trends which are likely to have a profound influence on the future of human evolution, especially the future of the corporate world? In the inner psychological realm there is a widespread seeking for a higher meaning and purpose in life and work. After a reign of soul-stifling and self-seeking materialism, people all over the world are seeking for some form of a moral, psychological and spiritual fulfillment in life and work. As Charles Handy, a leading management thinkers articulates the rationale behind this inner seeking for a higher purpose in life:
“The great and most satisfying thing in life, I think is a purpose beyond oneself. If the purpose is only for yourself it rapidly dissipates—-I think that if one doesn’t have a purpose beyond oneself, bigger than oneself, then one ends up disappointed”. (Handy.C, 1998)
This inner search for meaning is perhaps felt more in the corporate world than in the other sections or society because of two reasons. The first factor is that in our modern age, it is the corporate world which attracts the cream of youthful talent and these talented people, when they are professionally and materially satisfied, seek for higher or inward fulfillment. So, Charles Handy, counsels business leaders “if you want to retain talent you have to provide a cause” and the organization have “to provide a purpose, if they want to retain good people”. (Handy.C, 1998) The second factor is that people in the corporate world, especially the talented ones, are more materially and economically satisfied than other sections of the society and therefore seeking for a more non-material fulfillment. As a manager of Dupont points out: “To a large extent the people that are here have gotten to a point where their basic needs are met as far as a sound financial basis for living and are looking to satisfy other internal needs.”
So, the emerging trends in the corporate world like the growing recognition of the importance of ethics, values, corporate social responsibility, and “spirituality-at-work” movement are not entirely the result of external or environmental factors as some management thinkers tend to think. There are psychological factors behind these movements. However both the environmental and psychological factors are perhaps the result of some terrestrial-evolutionary factors. Sri Aurobindo, a spiritual seers and thinker, gives an indication of this evolutionary factor in the following passage.
“In the next stage of human progress, it is not a material but a spiritual, moral and psychical progress which has to be made”. (Sri Aurobindo, 1972)
In other words the future evolution will be predominantly in the inner realms of consciousness and not exclusively in the outer material or economic life. The progress which has to be made in the future or in other words the type of progress which is in harmony with the next quantum leap in the evolutionary journey of Nature is the moral, aesthetic, psychological and spiritual development of the individual and the progressive self-expression of this inner progress in the outer life, leading to a corresponding progress of the community. The concept of this higher evolution or progress is not something entirely new. Most of the great civilizations of the past like the Greece, China and India had this ideal and conceived human progress, individual and collective, as a journey towards this ideal. But in the ancient world this ideal was mostly confined to the cultural life of the community, in religion, philosophy, art, literature, and pursued by a few elite individuals or communities. But in the future this higher progress has to be made not only in the religious and cultural life of the community but also in every activity of the secular life like economics, business, commerce, science, technology, family, community. Any approach to strategy which ignores this evolutionary imperative is not likely to be successful in the future.
At present corporate world as a whole is becoming increasingly sensitive to ethical issues. As the founder of Infosys, Narayana Moorthy points out: “Investors, customers, employees and vendors have all become discerning and demanding greater transparency and fairness in all dealings”. (Skaria.G, 1999) And the growing interest and emphasis on “Business Ethics” in the academic as well as the professional streams of management augurs well for the future evolution of business. However, for inner progress, the ethical motive has to become intrinsic, which means it has to be pursued for its own sakes, irrespective of external demands or practical considerations. For example, when Pramod Bhasin, President and CEO of Genpact was asked, “how do leaders face up to scenarios, where there could be clash between values and pragmatism, especially in the light of intense competitive pressures” he replied “The choice is easy, if we understand integrity is non-negotiable”. (Bhasin.P, 2004) This answer comes from a mind which has understood the intrinsic need of ethics. However for a more rapid and accelerated ethical and psychological progress of business, the corporate world must arm itself with an inner discipline by which the inner sources of unethical behaviour are eliminated and conversely the inner resources which strengthen the ethical consciousness and will of the individual and the community are augmented. Here comes the importance of Indian Yoga which can be of great help in formulating this inner discipline. This is the inner dimension which will be the most compelling factor of the future. There is also the outer dimension.
In the Outer Environment
The trends in the outer life in economics, society, politics, technology and science have been analysed and plotted comprehensively by futurist thinkers like Alvin Toffler and John Nisbet and many others. For example Japanese government has identified microelectronics, bio-technology, material sciences, telecommunication, civil aviation, robotics, machine tools, computer hardware and software as the seven-key-industries or technologies for the first part of the twenty-first century. Similarly most of the futurists have specified emergence of Asia and the growth of Woman-power as some of the mega-trends of the future. Here again, we have to identify the main tasks which will bring out the unmanifest possibilities in the outer life of humanity. We have identified the task in the inner being or consciousness in man as the moral, aesthetic, psychological and spiritual development of the individual and collectivity. In the outer life, the main evolutionary task of the future is to bring out fully all the potentialities of those sections of the society; community or the organization which were either suppressed or not given sufficient opportunities to express themselves.
Empowerment of the Marginalised
In this perspective, the main evolutionary tasks of the future, at the societal level are Equity and Empowerment. The first task is to create equity which means equitable distribution of or access to knowledge, wealth, wellbeing, decision-making, culture and opportunities for growth. The second task is the Empowerment of Women and the Worker at the lower levels of the social and organizational hierarchy. Empowerment means greater participation, freedom and opportunities for the full development and self-actualization of the individual. In these two tasks corporate world has taken the lead. The progressive sections of the corporate world are making a conscious effort towards equity through practices like minimizing hierarchy, democratic leadership, employee-participation in decision-making, profit-sharing, employee stock options, self-managed teams, corporate social responsibility and values like “respect for the individual”. Women are making their presence increasingly felt in business and management, not only in quantitative terms but also in terms of quality of work and effectiveness. Some companies, like for example, ICICI in India, have women-friendly policies and practices to retain talented women executives. Those companies or nations who are able to harness fully the potentialities of this demographic trend will have competitive and evolutionary edge over others. As Warren Benis, the well-known leadership guru, writes about US:
“—I think the US’s industrial competitive advantage will be the leadership of women. Partly because we have made a lot of progress in this particular area, not to the point where I’m satisfied yet, but far better comparatively than any other country I know—So even though we are still below where we should be, I think in the United States Women will be appearing much more often in top management positions, and one of our competitive advantages will be the full deployment of the talent of women in our work-force.” (Benis, Warren, 1998)
The quality movement initiated by Deming and the Japanese management has awakened the corporate world to the need for empowering the work-force in the shop-floor. Similarly, the demand of the emerging corporate environment for quick response to the fast-changing customer needs has awakened the corporate leaders to the need for empowering the front-line worker who is in direct contact with the customer, market or the field of work. As Michael Hammer, inventor of Reengineering, states:
“We need ways of operating in which decisions are made by those much closer to the work. We need a model in which people at the front-lines, armed with a basic strategy decided by the senior management of the company are given a lot of autonomy and responsibility for deciding things on their own. A model where management exists not to direct or to supervise but rather to facilitate and enable.” (Hammer.M, 1998)
Gary Hamel goes still further and says that empowerment should not be confined to the decision-making in the front-line. Even strategy-making, which was now done at the senior and top-management levels, has to percolate down into the younger and the marginal work-force on the periphery of the organization. Demanding a complete “democratization of strategy”, Hamel states:
“And that means giving a disproportionate share of voice to the people who until now have been disenfranchised from the strategy-making process. It means giving a disproportionate share of voice to the young people. It means giving a disproportionate share of voices to the geographic periphery of your organization—because typically, the further away you are from headquarters, the more creative people are: they don’t have the heavy hand of bureaucracy and orthodoxy on them. And it means giving a disproportionate share of voice to the new comers.” (Hamel .G, 1998)
In a nut-shell, the future tends in empowerment is moving towards what is now called as “distributed leadership” which means, initiative and leadership are valued and encourage at every level in the organizational hierarchy.
But it is easy to think such liberating and progressive ideas but much more difficult to put them into practice. Here comes the most promising part of these new trends; a few pioneering companies are converting these ideas into practices. ISS is a Danish firm in the cleaning business. The company, instead of creating hierarchical set up, formed teams that worked together on a contract. The front-line workers are trained not only to clean properly, but also on how to work together in a team, maintain quality standards, managing finance and finally to focus on the needs of the customer. And the work-group was given full freedom to work as a coherent, self-managed team, planning its work and taking its own decisions. (Barrret.C, 1999) The other well-known example is the Ramco of Brazil. Virtually every one in the company set their own hours. Some people with particularly valuable skills get higher salaries than their bosses without having to be in the management track. There is no hierarchy to speak of except titles like counselors or associates. Employees make most of the corporate decisions. When supervisory people are hired they are interviewed and evaluated by their future subordinates. There is complete openness of information. Financial data of the company is shared with workers. Company provides classes to workers on financial analysis so that they may understand the financial condition of the company. (Michael.R and Rinzler, 1993)
The Social and Environmental Responsibility
The other more visible trends in the corporate world are corporate social responsibility and environmentalism. The corporate social responsibility is in fact a part of the task of creating equity in society and therefore those companies which make it a part of their corporate strategy and pursue it persistently and sincerely, with a moral commitment to equity and distributive justice will gain evolutionary advantage. The other movement which will dominate the future is environmentalism. Here again many progressive companies are taking environmental sustainability seriously probably because it is also profitable. For example some of the ecological practices like waste recycling, energy conservation and carbon trading save money and resources. However, to achieve evolutionary advantage, the concept and practice of sustainability has to progress from token environmentalism like tree planting to make the entire organizational and industrial process, from procurement to packaging, sustainable. Secondly, the new science of ecology has deep and profound insights on the laws and principles by which Nature sustains and manages her creation. The modern management thinkers and practitioner has to learn from Nature, the science of sustainable management.
Whatever we have said earlier on corporate social responsibility applies equally to ecological sustainability. Those companies which make sustainability an integral part of their corporate strategy, will gain evolutionary advantage because, sustainability means attuning the corporate life with the laws of Nature. According to some thinkers’ ethics, social responsibility and environmentalism will be the three major values of the future paradigm in management and the main factors which will determine the competitive advantage in the future. For example, as Fritjof Capra and Gunter Pauli, points out:
“—-on the basis of thorough market analyses in Europe, Japan and the US, it has been concluded that during the next few years, ethical standards, a moral commitment and high environmental performance will not only become an integral part of the corporate strategy; these will become the way to outperform the industry and reestablish the unique marketing position so badly desired. It will be the only way to develop sustainable advantage.” (Capra.F, Pauli.G, 2007)
This is already happening, and when these values get firmly established in the corporate consciousness as the dominant governing motives, it will be a decisive upward shift in the evolution of business. And those companies who are able to make the shift within them will be the leaders of the future world.
However as we have indicated earlier, to realize the full moral, spiritual and pragmatic potentialities of these higher values, they have to be pursued for their own sake with a clear understanding of their significance for the higher evolution of the corporate world. For, ethics, spirituality and ecology have a relationship based on correspondence. Just like modern ecology reveals the laws of physical Nature, the ethical and spiritual values discovered by spiritual traditions of the world reveal the laws and ecology of the moral, psychological and spiritual dimensions of Nature. When an individual or a collectivity lives in harmony with the laws of Nature in all the dimensions¾physical, mental, moral and spiritual¾then it is in tune with the rhythms of the creative energies of universal Nature, which in turn is bound to have its positive impact in the inner as well as the outer life of the individual or the community.
The Network Economy
There is one more trend which is described by management pundits like C.K. Prahalad and Kevin Kelly as “Network economy”. The rigid boundaries between companies, suppliers, competitors, partners and customers are breaking down. The corporate world as a whole is becoming increasingly interdependent and becoming more and more conscious of it. A single company can no longer pursue its aims independently because most of its process and operations are outsourced to other companies. And the growing trend towards “customization” which means tailoring the product or service to the unique and exact requirement of the individual customer requires close collaboration between suppliers, and customers and sometimes with competitors. Sometimes a company may be at once a supplier and competitor. For example Philips is a competitor to Sony but also its supplier. (Prahalad C.K, 2004)
So the strategic attention is shifting from outwitting the competitor by pursuing competitive advantage to providing a great and delightful experience to the customer by collaboration, partnership and networking. According to an interesting study conducted by Business Week Research Services more and more CEO’s are turning to collaboration with their business networks to win new networks and address evolving customer needs quickly. This research report, titled “Getting Serious About Collaboration. How companies are Transforming their Business Networks”, states that half of the respondents said they were currently counting on partners for research and development, manufacturing, marketing, logistics, distribution, customer service, human resources management. And finally, the report states that this trend towards collaboration is skyrocketing in the small and mid-sized sectors. (Express New Service, CEO’s Opt for Collaboration, Indian Express, July 20, 2008)
As this collaborative trend becomes more and more dominant, the concept of competitive advantage, as a deliberate and conscious approach to strategy, will become obsolete; it will be replaced by a networking approach in which the ability to discover and forge complementing partnership with other stakeholders and wherever necessary with competitors, to provide qualitatively superior value or experience to the customer, will be the main factor of organizational effectiveness.
Managing Work-force Diversity
There is one more important trend in global business, which belongs to the future world: managing cultural diversity or cross-cultural management. The global business is facing the problem of managing unprecedented cultural and ethnic diversity of the work-force. For example Honeywell a multi-national company has a work-force which speak 29 languages, represents 47 cultures and 90 ethnic backgrounds. The initial response of corporate management was what is called as the melting-pot approach. The management assumed that every one irrespective of his or her cultural background will assimilate or integrate himself to the common culture and values of the company or that of the dominant majority. But later, the managements of global businesses have found by hard experience that individual and cultural differences cannot be so easily abolished; people do not want to loose their individual or cultural identities and any attempt to force or subordinate these group identities into a homogenous mass leads only to unnecessary and wasteful conflict. As a result corporate managements all over the world are adopting a more positive and creative approach to cultural diversity as a source organizational effectiveness. The new recognition which is emerging in management thought is that if this rich cultural and ethnic diversity, which can provide multiple cross-cultural view-points and perspectives, can be properly harnessed it will enhance the creative potentialities of the organization as a whole. Thus, as the management writer Stephen Robins points out, the way management looked at employees has evolved from “everyone’s the same” to “acknowledging differences”, and finally to “valuing differences” as a source of creativity and innovation. For example, Honeywell management strives to create an environment that values individual differences, removes barriers to equal opportunity and empowers employees to develop their talents fully. The various ethnic and cultural groups are encouraged to form advisory councils to identify and resolve common issues, like for example American Asian Council, American Indian Council, Women’s Council, Black American Council. (Robins. S, 1997)
This task of managing cultural diversity is an evolutionary task of the future. For Unity-in Diversity is the goal toward which Nature is moving in the collective life of humanity. So every sincere and creative attempt towards creating a free and harmonious diversity without abolishing or suppressing the uniqueness is a task which is in harmony with evolutionary intentions of Nature. Those institutions or groups, which undertake this task, will gain an evolutionary advantage over others.
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