CR Talk - What makes a meaningful company

I HAD spent the better part of the month consumed by When Breath Becomes Air (apart from work and all else).

A poignant meditation about life and death, it is written by the late Dr Paul Kalanithi, a Stanford neurosurgeon who discovered that he was going to die of lung cancer at the age of 36.

Kalanithi's book is as much about living as dying – he had spent the better part of his life training to be a top neurosurgeon. Just as he thought he was ready to live with the trimmings that come with success – better salary, bigger house and holidays, he had to figure out how to die.

What makes human life meaningful? "There must be a way," wrote Paul, "that the language of life as experienced – of passion, of hunger, of love – bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts and heartbeats." The lyrical beauty of his writing makes one ponder deeply about what makes a meaningful life.

After all, we only have one shot at living.

It also makes me think of what makes a meaningful company. Companies are institutions where we spend a better part of our lives and contribute so much of our energy and creativity.

When I started studying CR (Corporate Responsibility) and searched for this meaning, what I encountered were legal walls, political parameters and institutional borders.

The pursuit has led me to meet people and institutions working along similar lines in diverse fields – collectively striving towards re-imagining 150 years of company law and also, perhaps a more defined role for the corporation in society.

Companies are created to make profits but that profit must be made responsibly. This is surely clear by now. What kind of language do companies use to achieve this end?

It is a language tied back to win-lose transactions and win at all cost operations. It is a language that is full of jargon like stakeholder engagement and social enterprises.

Stakeholder engagement is a term to explain how companies identify people and institutions who are important to them and how they are engaged.

The term and its ambit fail to fully explain how the company is actually supported and built by relationships. An
employee for example is not just a stakeholder managed through terms of contract.

To reduce the role of an employee through a nexus of contracts is to ignore the rich and diverse roles employees lend to a company.

Another term that is bothersome is social enterprise, surely one of the hottest trends around which essentially defines a new type of "company" that is conceptualised with a social objective.

This is a very confusing notion – does this mean that all non-social enterprises ie all companies registered with the Companies Commission of Malaysia have no social objectives?

Are we saying that companies as we understand them do not and cannot contribute to society, hence the need for this formula called social enterprise?

If a company says that its role is to satisfy the minimum requirements of the law and ensure that they minimise any harm that they can do, that company is locked in the language of transaction – economists call this "externalities" – by paying their employees as little as possible, squeezing supply chains and transferring the cost to their customers as much as possible.

Companies that continue to think this way will also continue to brandish different CR jargon to suit their needs.

Even in companies with a more sophisticated understanding of CR, the practice is still defined by data, targets and reporting.

This is not unimportant but they are mere markers or testaments to progress. That testament needs to be supported by a common vision and connection.

Last month, I promised to share some of the key ingredients that go toward embedding CR strategically. Instead of giving you a list which you will never remember, it is easier to point out that the heart of the strategy is simply this – CR needs to be understood as how companies connect and thrive through relationships.

Once this understanding is established, CR will become meaningful.

Again, this is almost like imposing a foreign language to companies. The current language that is used to shield the company from accountability and truly connecting with the community comes from multiple systems: law, economics, politics, geography. It is a reflection of how CR is blanked out from the decision-making process and works as a "sum of parts".

The internal dimension of corporate power is focused on the power of corporations over individuals within, specifically the power over employment decisions, an issue that has received reams of Marxist discussions.

The external dimension looks at corporate impact on society at large, specifically corporate power to control markets, their capacity to accumulate capital and affect the economy as well as their ability to shape the forces of production.

This sum of parts understanding needs to be re-calibrated with the language of relationships in order for the company to embed a more holistic system.

Of course, the question before us now is this: is it possible to re-align this sum of parts understanding and introduce a systemised language of CR at all?

"I have come to see language as an almost supernatural force," wrote Paul Kalanithi, "existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimetre-thick skulls, into communion.

A word meant something only between people, and life's meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form."

CR is a series of relationships. It is central to both the profit and purpose of a business and must be integrated in its practices.

CR that truly connects the company with the community where it operates is what companies need to aspire for.

When Breath Becomes Air is available at Borders. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com