Shifting Roles of Management in Society

Business Addressing Social Problems


Increasingly, the public expects business to address a growing array of social problems. What are grand challenges for management in society?

Is business beginning to see beyond short-term gains? The number of companies that have sustainability as a top management agenda item jumped to 65 percent in 2014 from 46 percent in 2010, according to the Annual Sustainability Report by MIT Sloan Management Review, the Boston Consulting Group, and the UN Global Compact. Consumers are beginning to expect it. According to Nielsen’s latest corporate social responsibility survey, “more than half (55 percent) of global respondents ... say they are willing to pay extra for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact—an increase from 50 percent in 2012 and 45 percent in 2011.”

Investors, employees, analysts, and media organizations are paying more and more attention to ratings and rankings of sustainability performance and initiatives, such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices, the Carbon Disclosure Project’s leadership index, Fortune Magazine’s Most Admired Companies list, and the 100 Best Corporate Citizens, named by Corporate Responsibility Magazine. But is it enough for business to simply embrace sustainability, especially if it does not change the fundamental purpose of the company? Some say business must go further.

Business, the corporate form in particular, is one of the most influential institutions in society and is already recognized as an important contributor to global economic growth and development. Rising above widespread public distrust, many leaders have been trying to harness the energy and power of business to address the world’s most pressing problems. Through platforms such as the UN Global Compact and Business as an Agent for World Benefit, businesses can join hands across borders and with other sectors to find solutions to extreme poverty, environmental degradation, and social injustice. These leaders and platforms have been challenging the prevailing narrative of the business corporation—that the purpose of corporations is to maximize profits for shareholders.

But if businesses do not exist solely to maximize shareholder wealth, then it is fair to ask why they do exist. There are many emerging frameworks, ranging from Conscious Capitalism to Shared Value. In the near future, organizations of any type might turn to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for inspiration. Emerging from the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development and its outcome document, The Future We Want, SDGs would be determined through an inclusive and transparent process open to all stakeholders, including business. The current draft outlines 17 goals, addressing issues such as poverty, hunger, health, environment, and more.

Related Resources

Leadership that is Best for the World
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50+20 – Management Education For The World
A collaborative initiative that seeks to learn of new ways and opportunities for management education to transform and reinvent itself.

Combining Profit and Purpose: A New Business Dialogue on the Role of Business in Society
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Private Sector, Public Good, Harvard Business School
Discusses the opportunities and barriers to firms' addressing public sector challenges.

The Triple Bottom Line: Student Activists Demand More from B-Schools
A public policy article from Knowledge @ Wharton which examines the idea that it is the business of business schools to teach future execs how to solve social and environmental problems.

Annual Sustainability Report
Research done by MIT Sloan Management Review finds that as sustainability issues become increasingly complex, global in nature and pivotal to success, companies are realizing that they can’t make the necessary impact acting alone.

Doing Well By Doing Good
More than half (55 percent) of global respondents in Nielsen’s corporate social responsibility survey say they are willing to pay extra for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact—an increase from 50 percent in 2012 and 45 percent in 2011.

Leadership Index
An index provided by the Carbon Disclosure Project which ranks the top 500 climate changes leaders.

World’s Most Admired Companies 2015
Fortune Magazine publishes a yearly ranking of the world's most admired companies. Apple ranked number one in 2015.

100 Best Corporate Citizens List
CR Magazine ranks the best corporate citizens annually. In 2015, CR Magazine ranked Microsoft number one.

The Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit
The Fowler Center at Case Western University has a primary focus on for-profit organizations that use their core activities to create value for society and the environment in ways that create even more value for their customers and shareholders

Sustainable Development Goals
The Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, as part of the United Nations, shares a set of Sustainable Development Goals developed at the Rio+20 Conference by member States.

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