Changing Conceptions of Corporate Purpose

Group classroom work

Helping global corporate leaders make use of a values-rich conception of purpose to navigate in turbulent times.

Overview

Our work explores how the idea of “corporate purpose” itself has shifted in content and impact over several decades.

Launched in 2015, in collaboration with the Beacon Institute EY Global, our work is part of a broader research initiative at Oxford to unpick the key issues in 21st century stakeholder capitalism and responsible leadership, in collaboration with corporate partners and in the service of world-leading executive education.

The research team comprises Marc Ventresca, Andrew White, Abrar Chaudhury, Dave Tullett, Anne Augustine, Heli Helanummi-Cole, and Steve Mostyn.

Research projects

The changing conceptions of corporate purpose, the renewed interest among global leaders in the language and practice of purpose, and the efficacy of purpose.

Beyond this Mountain: Navigating Through Turbulent Times

A collaboration with the Beacon Institute at EY Global, led by Oxford alumna Valerie G Keller. Our 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.

When companies do purpose, what do they do?

The project team are analysing interviews with forty senior executives from EY global clients and developing comparative case studies. Exploring early moments of the purpose journey, we chart the missteps that can derail purpose initiatives, and look at corporate decisions that redirect core strategic activities of the firm into purpose-resonant initiatives.

Corporate transformations of the 2030s 

Our work 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, the research formulates propositions about emerging transformation journeys and new corporate forms.  It builds on the ‘Beyond this Mountain’ research, to suggest the challenges for incumbent global corporations and to explore how they engage ‘purpose’ in policy and practice. 

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. 

Research publications