iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Margaret Heffernan

GET UPDATES FROM Margaret Heffernan

Is There Hope for Business Graduates?

Posted: 07/15/11 03:14 PM ET

Last week, I received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bath, one of the top 10 universities in the UK. It was a doctorate in business -- and I received it one day after the revelations concerning News Corporation's hacking of phones owned by victims of crime.

This meant it was, to say the least, a tough day to inspire young graduates to head into the business arena with their heads held high. Anyone with half a brain would have felt it was a day to go back to college, not leave it; to abandon business, not embrace it. We need to be honest about just how bad things are -- but we also need new entrants into business to be optimistic, not cynical, courageous and not defeatist. So this is what I came up with:

It's hard to imagine a more challenging moment in which to be honored for working in business. Over the past 4 years in which the banking crisis has unfolded -- and continues to unfold -- we've seen unparalleled examples of fraud, deception, institutional abuse and systemic, cultural criminality.

It's been tempting to think of the banking crisis as just a technical problem: fix the math and we'll get it right next time.

Or to think about it as an economics problem -- build a better model and maybe we'll be safer next time.

But at heart, this has been a moral crisis, pointing up the degree to which the tactical goals of business -- revenue growth -- have become the over-riding principle and measurement of everything we do as a society. This monetization of morality -- according to which, any crime is forgivable and forgettable if it generates enough revenue -- has brought business into disrepute and shattered the trust between companies and the society in which they operate. The greatest damage done by this crisis has been to leave people and business profoundly disconnected.

And yet -- perhaps perversely -- I'm an optimist. A crisis of this kind forces us to face up to hard problems and one of the things I've learned -- both from running companies and writing books -- is that it is often when work is hardest that you are learning the most.

We are learning that the human mind has the capacity to build business and systems far more complex than our ability to manage or even to fix them -- and that perhaps the greatest intelligence lies in knowing when to stop.

We are learning that businesses and financial institutions don't work like machines -- that, instead, they are far more like living organisms, highly reactive, interactive and utterly non-linear in the way that they evolve and respond to change.

We are learning that the proper role of business is not to replace society but to serve it. When the Chief Executive of GlaxoSmithKline talks about putting people before profits, you know that some fundamental sea change has occurred. And when institutional investors condemn him for that, you know that change still has some way to go.

From my experience of running companies, I have seen how companies can stretch, enhance and develop the people who work in them. Perhaps of all my businesses what I'm proudest of is the number of employees who've gone on to build their own companies: organizations that are respectful of individuals, engaged with society and resolutely built on trust.

From so many of the companies I've studied and written about, I've seen the tremendous power that companies have to solve social problems, to make society more coherent (not less) and the vast opportunities that open up when we determine to address problems and not to outsource them.

Because I write both books about business and plays about -- everything -- I'm often asked: so what are you Margaret? A businesswoman or an artist? To which the honest reply is: "Yes. I have always believed in the power of art and of business to change the world.

I have always believed that, as members of the world's elite -- in our access to food, to health and education -- that we have a responsibility not just to consume but to contribute.

And that our contribution can take many forms -- be they companies or books or plays or software or teaching.

At their heart, all of these are creative processes that express who we are and connect us to others. They are what make us human.