Matters Column

The role of business in today’s ever-changing society

March 23, 2018
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When people talk about work, they typically start with a brief discussion of what they do and the name of that job. “I’m a taxi driver, I take people from here to there for a fee.” Most people understand what the job is and how it affects the customer. They rarely give much more thought to it. That is until recently. Now, you have Uber and Lyft drivers. Things are a bit more complicated. The taxis are personal cars, there is no taxi stand, and sometimes, it is hard to pick out which car is a taxi. Most of these people do other things than driving a cab. So, the answer to what is your job may get a bit more complicated, as well.

The taxi example is just one of many changes in society that impact the job. In fact, as you begin to look more closely at jobs and the work environment, we find that our jobs are evolving on a fairly regular basis, no matter what the “work” is about.

In simple terms, an organization is formed to provide a service or make something that helps others, and there is a way to obtain funds to keep the operation functioning. If it is a business, there is also the idea of profit to reward the people who take the initiative to be paid for their efforts. When help is needed to accomplish the task, they hire workers and pay them. All very straightforward: Do something that rewards you for the effort you provide.

In the beginning, the only rules or governing principles were: Can you organize or work “things” to achieve your goals? Things were pretty clear. Your job was owner or your job was worker. Each did their own role and obtained the just rewards.

Times change

The owners in fulfilling their role of directing the enterprise would look for ways to do things better, easier, quicker, cheaper, etc., with the objective of sustainability and more rewards. Their view of who should benefit and how often resulted in disproportionate reward distribution. Craft guilds formed in the middle ages for basically the same reason: control of the environment and resources that affected their operations and economic goals. Each owner, craftsman, customer would work the system for their own benefit.  

As society evolved, the tools and the methodologies of control also evolved so that other influencing factors besides ideas, knowledge, skills and capital came into play. However, throughout this process, operational practices continued to stem from positions of power. Those who have the power make the decisions that benefit their goals and impact others because they can. However, when the outcomes of the decisions get too much out of balance, those affected look for ways to rebalance status quo and what is acceptable.

Depending on the circumstances, what is acceptable often stems from the ideas presented from new power blocks e.g. industrial unions, minority groups and gender organizations whose efforts often bring about change in laws and regulations. Each rule is designed to protect someone, either directly, like safety provisions, or indirectly, such as preventing monopolies that could then be used to control prices. Some of these specific laws tend to spawn a cadre of related laws and practices.

Navigation of these laws and regulations make the effort to run a successful business (profitable) a little harder. However, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing they will force everyone out of business because business will look for new ways to operate. Some will look to regain operational controls by trying to influence those who make the rules. Others will take concerted efforts to do what they do better or minimize those practices that create issues. And some, of course, will do a bit of all these things. Making the right adjustments takes time and effort, as well as money in many cases. But one thing that seems to be a standard pattern is those who guess wrong or have to undo actions and play catch-up will find the required changes most impactful and distracting from the primary organization objectives.

Getting things right

So, coming up with the right strategy in an ever-changing operating environment often is easier said than done. But perhaps there are strategic practices that can be adopted to take you from a catch-up mentality to a leadership mentality. For example, instead of being forced to do something and fighting tooth and nail to resist change, it is likely to be much better to anticipate change, develop a culture that embraces change and then moves in ways that are beneficial to the organization at a pace that can be effectively accommodated, technologically, financially, socially, etc.

Another strategic approach is to look at critical organization decisions holistically rather than from a single dimension, i.e. can we make money on this? If we can say, “We get benefits in a variety of ways and we don’t lose money,” it may be a good idea because we position ourselves better in the marketplace or we attract and grow our skill base, etc. When we start looking at who gets hurt by our decisions, we are likely to have fewer situations we will have to deal with down the road and undo or modify at substantial costs.

Social change and business decisions are symbiotic

One can easily look around and see examples where organizations have missed the boat or didn’t notice changes in society that will impact what happens down the road. We can’t go back to what we thought was the ideal 20 years ago. The taxi drivers are likely to be replaced by self-driving cars and maybe so economical that people do not buy a car for each family member. Or looking at the impact of when everyone from age 5 on will have a smartphone and demands the business owners/leaders have a broader perspective of the world.

The people of our society will not put up with unbalanced resources and restricted opportunities.  The “good ol’ days” aren’t going to happen, no matter how much some of us want them. Those who anticipate, look ahead, plan and bring more folks effectively into the operations will have a more successful and less stressful business environment. These will be leaders who are positioned to shape society, bring opportunities to everyone and help fix the problems of our society.

Ardon Schambers is principal at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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