The future of business: What has gone wrong, what needs to change, and how to do it?

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The Covid-19 pandemic, the environmental crisis, systemic racism, ongoing economic inequality, and other global problems are symptoms of a deeper malaise, that cannot be solved by superficial measures such as CSR programmes or the creation of charitable foundations. Addressing these issues will require profound, systemic change and a complete rethink of the purpose of business.

But as Professor Marya Besharov, Emeritus Professor Colin Mayer, and Saïd Business School Chair Paul Polman discussed at Oxford Saïd on 8 December 2021, the desire and the will to make those changes is building. ‘People I think are more aware now of the universal values that we need to protect: values like dignity and respect for everybody, values like equity, compassion. If we don't fight for that we actually undermine the future of humanity,’ said Polman. 

The speakers were participating in the inaugural event of Business: The next 25 years – What has gone wrong, what needs to change, and how to do it? In a wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation, a number of important themes emerged.

The economic model is broken

The focus of business in the last few decades has been wealth-creation and shareholder returns, with a belief that competition and markets will solve all problems. This is creating massive inequalities that the political system cannot cope with.

Collaboration and a new understanding of the purpose of business are the way forward

As responses to Covid-19 have shown, man is a naturally communal animal and thrives from working together with others to solve problems. And this is the real purpose of business: to solve problems faced by individuals, societies, and the natural world, and to do it in a commercially viable, financially sustainable, and profitable way.

Leadership remains vital

But we need a new leadership, in both government and business, that is based on collaboration and partnership rather than competition; and that creates shared values and trust.