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How to Reconcile Business And Society

Businesses shape our societies with their products, services and innovations. But if companies do bring something to the table, how to make sure that they bring something good?

Brief

As businesses shape our societies, how much responsibility should these businesses have for their impact? Michaël Dandrieux, has been actively working with global companies and NGOs for more than 20 years to share his knowledge and collaborate to design solutions that reconcile today’s fragile relationship between companies and society. In today’s relevant time, Michaël Dandrieux’s TEDx Talk will show you the opportunities that unleash when Business marries Social Sciences.

You cannot take good care of something that you don’t know well.

And If you’ve done anything in your life that requires attention or commitment, it might even already be a truth embedded into your hands.

❝ You cannot take good care of something that you don’t know well.❞  

If you do yoga or gardening or if you like cooking, you’ve learnt that the exact same recipe with the exact same ingredients, if you do it with distraction and haste, or with attention will not end up being the same pie.

To work with the world around us, we need to engage in this special kind of knowledge.

Now that you remember that, we can wonder: why should we expect companies to take good care of their environment, if they are deprived of the means to know it?

Give sight to the businesses that transform our lives

I am a sociologist who works with corporations. My obsession is the social bond. And for the last 15 years, I’ve witnessed first hand how companies, mainly at their own expense, can have a negative impact on it.

Why are human made organizations detrimental to the very society humans are supposed to live in?

The time has come to reconcile companies and society.

You may think that it’s unnecessary. That the story between people and companies is a love story. But in fact, trust between consumers and corporations has steadily gone down in some countries since the 70s.

And the grudge is even older and more structural.

❝ The time has come to reconcile companies and society.❞  

On the one hand, companies became a very strong transformative force of society. They bring products and innovation and services that change our life. That alter our culture. But not only that.

They are massive transformative forces. If you think about the objects or services that changed your life, the iPhone, Google maps, Uber, or the COVID vaccine, they probably come from a company.

Their HR policies are also showing people who work in the corporate world how to live together. What behaviour is allowed, what behaviour is recommended, what behaviour is rewarded. Companies manufacture products, services and ultimately culture, that actually overflow them, and come into our everyday life.

But the problem is that, mainly, they operate as blind actors. They have absolutely no tools to understand, beyond the products, services and culture that they put out there, what happens when these products and services come into society. How they alter our lives. They do not measure the cultural consequences of their actions.

Companies need to know the world better so as to take better care of it. Otherwise, they might actually harm the conditions of life, without even realizing it.

Humanities play hard-to-get

And on the other hand, society built fantastic tools to understand itself. These are called “humanities”.

Humanities are the set of practices allowing us to study the vast variety of the human phenomenon. Why are we here? What are we doing? What makes us tick? Why do we do things together, when we could do it on our own.

But the problem is that, very often, the product of research in humanities is a thick book that ends up on a lonely shelf. Which is a shame, because it’s exactly the insights companies would need to understand the consequences of their actions.

So what we have is, on the one hand, a massive transformative force of society with scarce knowledge of society. And on the other, all the tools to understand society. But these two just don’t meet.

And you can’t take good care of what you don’t know well.

Knowledge and information are not the same thing

When I bring this up to corporations, they usually tell me one of 2 things. They tell me either:

  1. but we have a lot of information about the world. Or they tell me
  2. But we do a lot for the world already.

Sadly none of these things are exactly true.

So. 1. Yes, We have a lot of information about the world we’re living in. The amount of data that we gather about it has never been so big. But having information about something and having knowledge about something are two very different stories.

Information is a piece of intelligence that is sleeping in a repository. And you can access it in order to navigate the world around you. Think about GPS coordinates. But you wouldn’t say that you *know* a city really well even if you knew all the GPS coordinates of all the streets.

❝ Knowledge binds you with the object that you learn to know. It’s a process of attachment. And that’s why it's not because you read a Wikipedia page about love or grief, that you have experienced love or grief. ❞  

Information is a cold gathering of data. And knowledge is very different from that. Knowledge binds you with the object that you learn to know. It’s a process of attachment. And that’s why it's not because you read a Wikipedia page about love or grief, that you have experienced love or grief. And that’s also why we say that we have *known* love, that we have *known* grief.

When you’ve *known* love, when you’ve *known* grief, you became love a little bit, you became that grief. Information and knowledge are two entirely different things.

So no, companies. You can have a lot of information about the world and not know anything about it.

And 2, they say “we already do a lot for the world around us.”

But then if you look at what’s done by many corporations to participate in healing their environment, you realise that it doesn’t look like they are doing some things *in order to* contribute to the environment. It feels like they’re doing some things so that no one could tell them *they haven’t done* anything.

Lack of Care By Over Prevention

A simple example would be the signs you can see around accidental water ponds in train stations, to warn you of the danger. Next time you see one, think about it. Try to feel what it tells you. It really doesn’t feel like it’s telling you to be careful. You have all these signs everywhere, somehow completely out of proportion. It really feels like it’s telling you “we warned you and we’ve done so much, that you can never tell us that we haven’t done something”.

It feels very self-redeeming and defensive. I’ve seen this phenomenon happening so often that I had to give it a name. I’ve called this LOCBOP, for “lack of care by over prevention”. LOCBOP!

❝ Many companies are going to act in a very visible way, so that no one can blame them *not to* have cared in the first place.❞  

Many companies are going to act in a very visible way, so that no one can blame them *not to* have cared in the first place.

So no, Companies. You have not yet built the means to know the world you participate in.

And all of this is the reason why I’m standing here all alone in this theatre. This theatre shouldn’t be empty. It should be packed by people. And I shouldn’t be here on that stage. I should be sitting there. And committed actors should be on this stage, doing that one thing that is a glory of our species: expressing symbolic thinking.

Stop shooting yourself in the foot

But here we are, having this conversation.

And that's because zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, are the results of organisations blindly acting, deforesting, or destructing animal habitat, in spite of many warnings. We *really* should know better. Look at that cost.

Now. What can we do about this?

❝ We’re not only responsible for the products we’re selling. We’re responsible for the world these products enable.❞  

There is a pretty simple solution. Hire people from social sciences. But don’t hire them so they can give you consumer insights to manufacture more consent, and sell more products.

Hire sociologists to make sure that you’re not preying on the community you seek to help. Eventually, that’s going to ruin you. Hire philosophers to understand how your company‘s culture is actually impacting the way your teammates educate their children. Eventually, they’re going to thank you. Hire anthropologists to culturally test your products. We’re not only responsible for the products we’re selling. We’re responsible for the world these products enable. Eventually, the mere fact that there will still be a world to trade in, will benefit you. Think about it.

Knowledge brings care

Trade is a fundamental activity of human life, and nothing predisposes it to be a negative force in the development of societies. I firmly believe that a profound understanding of the human phenomenon and its environment are key to long-lasting corporate prosperity.

The responsibility lies both ways, though. This talk should be call far all entrepreneurs to stop discarding humanities: your pragmatic, impact-oriented operations have become the most powerful tool to shape society. More powerful than the states and religions in some ways. You now bear the responsibility of full-scale agents of civilisation. Researchers need to learn from you the means to act on society, take knowledge out of the shelves.

But it’s also a call to all “somethingologists” to stop looking down at the corporate world. Your intellectual, exploratory, non-instrumental approach of life is what casts light onto humanity. Companies won’t understand their societal function without you.

Companies: you are an industry of life, because your products, your services and your culture have an impact on life. Yes, you have an end. A purpose, a mission. And we rapidly become obsessed by the means to meet this end. But it is perfectly possible to have a very clear mission, and that this mission be crap.

❝ So it’s time we wonder: if the end justifies the means, what justifies the end?❞  

So it’s time we wonder: if the end justifies the means, what justifies the end?

My answer would be this: for me, the mission of all missions, the purpose of all purposes should be *the habitability of the world*. That’s what matters. That’s the only thing we do. That’s what our companies should do. Ensure that the conditions be met for a good life to take place. For this, we need to bring this special kind of attention to everything we do. Be more concerned. Be more Involved. Care more. And it is my firm belief that the more you learn about something, intimately, the more you grow attached to it, and feel co-dependant of it. It is my firm belief that knowledge brings care.

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