by Kevin Chan
Come with me, if you will, to my imaginary scenario of how this immense thing we now call “the world of business” first started. In our mind’s eye, we travel to a village in the cradle of civilisation many thousand of years ago and observe the interactions there. Each family in the village was concerned with producing everything required for family life. They each cultivated some rice, raised some chickens, went into the forest for wood and other resources, and built and repaired their own houses. In general, they lived very busy lives to produce barely enough goods and services for their own family’s sustenance. Progress was limited to what each family could produce for themselves.
One day, the village brainiac had a brainwave. She called the others together and said, “Instead of us wearing ourselves out doing all of these different things, Mr. Sanders can raise the chickens (since building a large coop and caring for 50 chickens is far easier than building 5 small coops and caring for 5 groups of 10 chickens each); Mr. Jasmine can grow the rice with assistance from Mr. Basmati and Mr. Long-grain; Mr. Broc and Mr. Coli can grow our vegetables. Then every week, we’ll come together and exchange our crops. Mr. Hammer can maintain our houses and other structures.”
Then, Mr. Trader from a nearby village that was close to a river visited and noted, "your chicken tastes pretty good, but have you tried fish?” Before long, a regular cart service ferrying fish and chicken between the villages started up. Other villages joined in the system, exchanging surplus produce for things they lacked, creating a need for road maintenance crews, cart dealerships, service centres and so on.
With this specialisation and division of labour, the first business environment was born for the purpose of efficiency and greater productivity in providing goods and services to their community. Right through till today, business exists to provide goods and services to their communities through specialisation and division of labour. Money wasn’t even a necessary part of the picture until they encountered the need to record what they had provided to a neighbour, for redemption at a later time.
There is an ancient saying: “Do not boil a goat in its mother’s milk.” This appears both in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible (Exodus 23:19) and the Jewish Talmud (Hullim 113b). While it sounds like a strange instruction, the word picture this paints is one of killing and cooking a young goat using something that was originally intended for its health and nourishment. The counsel from this idiom is to not use something for a purpose that is contrary to its original purpose. Recent events like the various financial crises around the world, revelations of big business exploiting “the little guy”, and the widening gap between rich and poor are all symptoms of businesses “cooking” communities in the "milk" that was supposed to be their nourishment, simply so that businesses can help themselves to a larger meal.
On the contrary, Better Businesses have the long-term needs of its community as the primary motivation for its decisions. This is not to say that profit is bad, far from it. Profit is a very necessary component of ensuring ongoing benefit to community. Without it, the business would fold and the community would lose whatever benefit they had previously been happy to pay for.
Looking around, I see unrest among the masses. There is now pressure on companies to have strong Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) components in what they do; there is an awareness of fair trading; there is a movement of social entrepreneurship rising from the dust of struggling charities.
On the one hand, this is wonderful progress. On the other hand, it is just the beginning of a movement back towards better business: changing business culture so that CSR isn’t just a small part of a businesses, but its reason for being; where fair trade is not just a desperate cry from an exploited few, but the modus operandi of doing business; where social enterprise is the normal way business is carried out.
Is this a pipe dream? Too idealistic? Maybe, but imagine...