The future of capitalism in five minutes: meaning-driven business in fast times

According to the Chicago Booth/Kellogg School Financial Trust Index from April 8, trust in business has reached unprecedented lows, with only 10% of Americans now saying they trust large corporations. The "future of capitalism," it seems, is at stake.

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
9 min read

Never let a crisis go to waste! Inspired by the transformative impetus of the economic downturn, we’ll soon be starting our series about “Meaning-Driven Business” that invites leading business thinkers as well as C-level executives to discuss alternative ways of doing business and creating value. The series is based on the assumption that the current crisis is also a moral crisis, a fundamental crisis of trust in business leadership. According to the Chicago Booth/Kellogg School Financial Trust Index from April 8, trust in business has reached unprecedented lows, with only 10% of Americans now saying they trust large corporations. The “future of capitalism,” it seems, is at stake.

All this serves as a clarion call for business as unusual, and new ideas and values are in high demand. We believe this is an important conversation, and with “Meaning-Driven Business” we would like to provide a forum in which our guest contributors (some of them our clients) can present their ideas – from different backgrounds, different industries, and different corporate functions. Obviously, we‘re not the only ones exploring new horizons for business, nor are we the first. Some distinguished scholars and thought leaders have staked the claim and produced some great thinking around this topic.

Let’s start with an unlikely expert: the Catholic Church. The New York Times reports that Pope Benedict XVI is worried about global capitalism going awry. In “Charity in Truth,” his first papal encyclical on economic and social matters, he posits that Roman Catholic teachings can help reign in Western economics by encouraging social justice (which always means solidarity with the poorer and weaker) and closely regulating the market. In the same article, the Times cites German archbishop Reinhard Marx, a close advisor to the pope, who has written a best seller titled “Das Kapital” (“The Capital”), in a not so subtle reference to his more famous namesake. Obviously inspired by the success of the German post-war model (and the European welfare state philosophy in general), the archbishop calls for a universal “global social market economy” but is prudent enough to acknowledge its limitations, quoting Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg: “I approve of the notion that Europe sees itself, unpretentiously, as a model for the world, but the consequence of that is that we would have to constantly change that model because we are not the world.”

Like the pope and his archbishop, economist Umar Haique argues that we need to re-boot capitalism. And like Reinhard Marx, he focuses on a re-definition of “capital.” His concept of “constructive capitalism,” however, is more radical than the social market economy solution Marx proposes. Haique demands that 21st century economics fundamentally rethink “what capital isn’t – and what capital really is.” “The value equation of industrial-era capitalism was toxically imbalanced. Why is industrial era business so destructive – why does it slash and burn rainforests, endanger entire species, vaporize culture and community, marginalize the poor and disadvantaged, and erode our health and vitality? Because none of those have value in an industrial economy: none are capitalized. So the bean counters of the world are free to plunder and ruin them – because, economically, they actually don't exist. 20th century capitalism, in other words, marginally valued pure financial capital too highly, while marginally valuing human, natural, social, and cultural capital at zero – or, at the limit, negatively." One example of the “capital deepening” Haique envisions are carbon assets: “Once they're capitalized, they become next-gen assets: assets that can be traded, hedged, remixed, tweaked, open-sourced, or shared. The difference is that they're assets with intrinsic, durable, human value – not the lemons Wall St was in the business of hawking. It is only by capitalizing the things we really value that the spark of value creation can be lit again.” As another example of really valuable capital Haique refers to Rypple, an ad-hoc social network that provides simple, direct, anonymous, and ongoing customer and employee feedback: “Rypple’s economic engine is powered by human and social capital – Rypple taps the connections people have with friends, colleagues, bosses, and mentors, to help them get smarter and more productive.”

Former Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff would agree with Haique. She is the author of The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism, and in her recent BusinessWeek article “The Old Solutions Have Become the New Problems,” she proposes companies charter what she calls the “i-Space”: “Business is no longer just about the product. Now it’s about solutions for the individual. Economic value is hidden in consumers’ unmet needs and is released by providing people with the means to fulfill those needs. But in order to release new value, you need to get out of organization space and into the subjective space where individuals live. I call it ‘I-Space.’ This means shedding the ‘us-them’ mentality. Now everyone is an insider.” To succeed in i-space, companies “must federate and collaborate to compete:” “You can't do it alone because the needs of individuals don't conform to existing organizational and industry boundaries. This means learning how to manage what you don't control or own. These economies of trust are becoming even more important than economies of scale. (…) Amazon’s marketplace and eBay's webs of buyers and sellers are early prototypes of these federated networks. Apple and Facebook are struggling to understand the rules of engagement that should govern relationships with their applications developers. You can see them climbing a new learning curve through trial and error as they figure out how to build and sustain economies of trust.” Zuboff is wary of the old paradigms still taught in business school and calls all previous “compasses” obsolete: “You're in a new place. The bad news: There are no maps. The good news? You are the mapmaker.”

Similarly, Jeff Jarvis' concept of the "Share Economy” and Chris Anderson’s notion of the “Free Economy" are both based on the assumption that there is no viable business in markets in which information and content are abundant (i.e. the news industry) unless you add the value of aggregation, create artificial scarcity, or give away those abundant assets (i.e. music recordings) that drive attention to assets that are truly scarce (the live concert experience). Or as Kevin Kelly puts it in "Better than Free": "When copies are free, you need to sell things which cannot be copied."

Richard Edelman from Edelman PR believes we are entering a new era of “Mutual Social Responsibility,” in which “people (formerly labeled as ‘consumers’ by marketers!) contribute to society’s sustainability and well-being in partnership with business, government and non-governmental organizations. But they demand a seat at the table and real voice in the discussion.”

Noah Robischon from Fast Company coined the new, chic term “Ethonomics:” “We live in a world that's resource-constrained but ingenuity-rich. So an upstart generation of entrepreneurs – and innovators within the world's biggest companies – are founding businesses that are good for the world as well as the bottom line. They are practicing social change through urban revitalization, sustainable agriculture, green IT, alternative energy and online community-powered investing. Any business that claims to be truly sustainable and innovative should be increasingly efficient with energy and natural resources, transparent and accountable, and good on balance for people and other living things.”

Speaking of social, there are many who would argue that the future of social is indeed the future of business. This trend even extends to the world of finance – arguably the one industry sector that has suffered most from excessive short-term innovation and is in greatest need of real transformation. Social innovation platform Volans calls for a "WeBank" and asks: "Are people replacing institutions?" As an example of alternative micro- and real-time financing models it refers to Zopa, the world’s first online social finance company:”With no middlemen, less overhead, improved rates for lenders and borrowers, and a sense of transactions between ‘real people,' it creates trust and shared interests between lenders and borrowers.”

Peter Kim, together with Jeff Dachis, David Armano, and other partners, has launched “the first social business firm,” Dachis Corporation, and developed a "social business design framework" for "understanding and applying social constructs to business.” Social business design is “a mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive way of considering how a corporation, business unit, or project can create and capture value from today's emerging technologies and evolving operating environment. The social business design framework captures ecosystem (community), hivemind (culture), dynamic signal (collaboration), and metafilter (content). Putting these into play creates improved business outcomes as well as emergent outcomes. Measurement provides the backbone to the entire framework, as driving change requires proof.” The most interesting archetype of Social Business Design to me is the Dynamic Signal, “the concept that every activity and action is recorded and made available, that every piece of data goes from being a database entry and is instead an event. An event which can be managed, shared and collaborated on by all of those in the organization,” as Dachis partner Jevon MacDonald explains. This concept resembles the familiar vision of the “Real Time Enterprise.” Rypple – mentioned before – offers real-time, ongoing customer and peer feedback, acknowledging that “Real-time business is inherently social – there is no real-time without social."

Yet the accelerated transactions and interaction cycles on the Real-Time Web need to be balanced with sustainable thinking. Quick decisions are easier to make if they’re grounded in a long-term perspective' agility requires stability; and the prerequisite for openness is a strong (and tight) community. It is it ever-more important that companies have a stable foundation, rooted in a set of shared of values and beliefs. At least that’s Charles Handy thinks: “....what enables a corporation to succeed in the longer term is a wish for immortality, or at least a long life; a consistent set of values based on an awareness of the organization's own identity; a willingness to change; and a passionate concern for developing the capability and self-confidence of its core inhabitants, whom the company values more than its physical assets. I suggest that those conditions are best met when organizations live up to the literal meaning of the word company –‘the sharing of bread’ – and regard themselves as communities, not property.....in time, the laws governing corporations will change to reflect (this) new reality." ("Looking Ahead," HBR September 1997).

For former Procter & Gamble chairman and CEO A.G. Lafley “Balancing present and future” is one of the key responsibilities of CEOs: “Don't allow the short-term interests to take precedence over the company's long-term objectives," he warns in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review (“What Only the CEO Can Do”). He describes the CEO as the only person in an organization who can link the external with the internal perspective. “It’s a job that the CEO must do because without the outside there is no inside.” You could argue, of course, that the real-time, hyper-transparent social web has made that distinction obsolete anyway: Inside and outside are congruent; they are one and the same.

There are numerous other thinkers that envision a faster and yet more sustainable, social business as the future of capitalism, and you can browse through articles and blogs post without end. Some recurring themes emerge though the more you read: On the organizational, delivery side, these themes are "social,” “real-time,” and “micro.” And on the cultural, the leadership side, they are “authenticity,” “generosity,” and “empathy.” If you combine the two layers, you get an interesting matrix – let's call it the "Meaning-Driven Business Matrix.” This is the playing-field in which all product, service, and business model innovation will take place from now on – but that’s a topic for a whole series (coming soon).