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Changing Conceptions of Corporate Purpose

Oxford on purpose

Researchers at the Said Business School, University of Oxford, lead on studies in the changing conceptions of corporate purpose, the renewed interest among global leaders in the language and practice of purpose, and on the efficacy of purpose-led transformation. This work is part of a broader research initiative at Oxford to engage key issues in 21st century stakeholder capitalism and responsible leadership, in collaboration with corporate partners and in the service of world-leading executive education.

One project investigates ‘Beyond this Mountain: Navigating Through Turbulent Times’,  a collaboration with the Beacon Institute at EY Global, led by Oxford alumna Valerie G Keller. This research investigates how and why global corporations are deploying the language and practice of purpose-led transformation, through structured comparative case studies and workshops with senior executives.  The early findings were reported in a series of Beacon Institute reports and in featured sessions at the Davos meetings of the World Economic Forum in 2015 and 2016. 

Oxford also convened a special Professional Development Workshop at the 2015 annual meetings of the Academy of Management to showcase the study results and discuss implications for policy and practice.  Over 90 people attended this workshop.  Great thanks for co-convening this Workshop to colleagues Basak Yakis-Douglas (DPhil alumna and now on faculty at King’s College, London) and Amanda Moss Cowan (DPhil alumna and now on faculty at University of Rhode Island).  

The project team are currently analysing interviews with forty senior executives from EY global clients and also developing the comparative case studies. The research question here is ‘When companies do purpose, what do they do?’ The project explores themes around early moments of the purpose journey, the range of missteps that can derail purpose initiatives, and context of trajectory decisions, that is corporate decisions that redirect core strategic activities of the firm into purpose-resonant initiatives. The research team comprises Marc Ventresca, Andrew White, Abrar Chaudhury, Dave Tullett, Anne Augustine, Heli Helanummi-Cole, and Steve Mostyn.

A second project explores ‘Corporate transformations of the 2030s’.  This research integrates findings from the key studies of corporation transformation journeys of the 1990s, with contemporary developments, to argue for attention to the possible transformation journeys of the 2030s.  This work necessarily integrates broad trends in the overall debates on the purpose of the corporation as organisational form and the changing view of key corporate stakeholders on governance. 

Working with colleagues in the wider University who authored key research on the corporate transformation journeys of the 1990s, the research will formulate propositions about emerging transformation journeys and new corporate forms.  It builds on the ‘Beyond this Mountain’ research, to integrate strategy questions of ‘exploit and explore’ to suggest the challenges for incumbent global corporations and to explore how they engage ‘purpose’ in policy and practice.  The research team conducts interviews with both incumbent senior executives and also ‘next generation’ corporate leaders, along with public intellectuals, media observers, and professional services and regulators who pay attention to the changing role and forms of the modern Anglo-American corporation.

In related work, we also study the changing conceptions of corporate purpose, using a range of text and document sources and using the tools of computational social science.  This work uses an original dataset on the annual reports of the F100 corporations, 1960-2020 and shows the changing content of ‘corporate’ purpose – from profits, through sustainability and now agility and values-based action.  This work was funded in part with research support from the Mutuality in Business initiative, with work done by Basak Yakis-Douglas and ongoing work with Matthew Grimes (Oxford MSc alumnus and now on faculty at Indiana University). This  project comprises Marc Ventresca, Andrew White, and Abrar Chaudhury.

Reports and publications

The State of the Debate on ‘Purpose’ in Business

Purpose-led Organisation:  ‘Saint Antony Reflects on the Idea of Organisational Purpose in Principle and in Practice.’  Journal of Management Inquiry 2016

The 4 Ps of Corporate Purpose by Marc J Ventresca and Steve Mostyn