THE BLOG
09/01/2016 02:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Making Corporations Meaningful

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Photo: I.Rimanoczy

Between August 5 and 9 in Anaheim, California, close to 10,000 people from 88 countries gathered to live out a different Disneyland experience. They were not the usual family tourists: this time, Anaheim saw academics, professors and scholars brought together by the 76th Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, an institution with over 19,000 members in 128 nations, which has the vision to inspire and enable a better world, through scholarship and teaching about management and organization.

Every year, this renowned institution sets a theme for the following conference, launching thereby a year of focused research and international collaboration as members seek to prepare submissions addressing the selected theme. Like a flashlight pointing into one corner, the selection of the theme has an extraordinary influence in drawing the attention of management educators across the globe.

Thousands of scholars and academics, aware of the importance of presenting at that event, focus on the next topic. They prepare papers, design research studies, engage colleagues and students, design workshops, sessions, roundtables, panels or symposia. But most importantly, they reflect and catalyze advancement on the particular theme.

Opening Governance, Capitalism in Question, The Informal Economy were some of past themes. This year's theme: Making Organizations Meaningful. Perhaps reflecting a collective response to the planetary social and environmental challenges, the invitation was to explore how we can (re?-)instate purpose into what we do. The call for submissions elicited 6,644 paper submissions, 396 unique symposium submissions, and 500 workshops proposals. Nearly 6,200 volunteer reviewers evaluated these submissions, selecting over 2,500 sessions which were then organized into countless parallel sessions during those five days.

Different angles of a topic

One of the characteristics that make the Academy of Management (AOM) valuable to its members, is its organization into multiple Divisions of interest. This allows individuals to easily locate and connect with colleagues who are working on similar areas. Members collaborate and exchange ideas in 25 management disciplines, such as Strategy, Conflict, Operations, Human Resources, Technology and Innovation, Public and non-profit Organizations, and the Natural Environment, etc.

Browsing through the sessions of a selection of disciplines that I explored, I found interesting perspectives. But perhaps the most interesting are the questions that were raised. Are we Homo Economicus or Homo Moralis? Are we trapped in an economistic paradigm we self-created, and now are collectively suffering the consequences of it, as we hunger for caring communities, human dignity, common good, and businesses that help solve our challenges, creating a better world?

In one session I attended the speaker cited the late Indian author and management professor Sumantra Ghoshal when he referred to the need to move our organizations away from the Army structure strategy, which is built upon Compliance, Constraints, Control and Contract. Instead, we need to develop organizations that use a People-Process-Purpose model, offering stretch goals, mutual trust, and support. Trust as a core aspect in the life of organizations was brought up in other sessions, for example comparing the most effective ways to develop trust in Korean, Chinese or other Asian cultures. Furthermore, the George Terry Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advancement of Management was given to author Charles Hecksder, for his book Trust in a Complex World: Enriching community collaboration and social wealth.

With the end in mind

Many presenters invited their audiences to start with an end in mind. What organizations do we want? What do we teach towards achieving that aim, and how?

A recurring point was that to make organizations meaningful, we need to connect the organization with all its stakeholders-- the traditional ones (clients, vendors, employees, community) but also the less-considered ones-- Nature and the next generations-- since the decisions taken in an organization impact them in very clear ways.

This, in turn led attention to Ethics. If ethical organizations become more meaningful organizations, how should ethics be taught? As a separate subject, as it is now in many management education programs? Or explicit and embedded into every discipline? The same question was raised about Sustainability, connecting the concept of meaningful organizations with organizations as institutions responsible for their actions and their impact on planet and society. Is Sustainability a course, or a lens through which we need to look at the world? Is it a job or a department in a corporation, or something that should permeate the organization?

A symposium led by Professors Satinder K. Dhiman and Joan Marques of Woodbury University, Ian Mitroff (University of California, Berkeley) and Dennis Heaton (Maharishi University) explored the role of ethical leadership in honoring and maintaining the connection of sustainability and spirituality. The speakers stated: "We believe that unless people's moral and spiritual qualities are nurtured and developed the best of sustainability efforts will not work. Our political and economic thinking needs to be attuned to spirituality rather than materialism, no economics is any good that does not make sense in terms of morality. We need to refuse to treat economics and politics as if people do not matter. The journey for world transformation starts at the individual level, our understanding of interconnectedness and oneness, non-violence and compassion, contribution and selfless service."

"World transformation" were words heard in many sessions. Professors Zhang and Zheng, from Lingnan University, China, shared how they converted their whole MBA program into an Action-Learning initiative with social projects. Professors from Indonesia, Philippines, India, Brazil, and USA, members of LEAP!, the United Nations-supported PRME Working Group on the Sustainability Mindset, told stories about developing a new mindset through 'heads, heart and hands'. Charlie Yang, Professor of Management at Southern Connecticut State University had students keep a journal on meditation and visit art galleries, and documented how the experience changed their mindfulness, decreased the stress level and increased feelings of compassion and empathy.

What is our role as scholars in creating meaningful organizations and a healthy world? This aspect was explored in a dialogue between noted thinkers on the interconnections among leadership, sustainability, the long-term viability of the planet, and how these depend on meaningful organizations. MIT Professor Otto Scharmer proposed the shift from ego-system to eco-system, which includes collaboration across institutions and sectors, something he has fostered through a recent MOOC that attracted over 50,000 participants from 191 countries. We need to move, it seems, from "I-ness to we-ness", from "illness to wellness."

Paradigm Change

The request for a new model of organizations, for a new economic and social model, and new ways of preparing students for this was present through many voices in the sessions I attended. From Switzerland, Anita Negri, President of the Student Organization Oikos, put it clearly: Students want educational programs that they find meaningful to today's challenges, and demand new university models. Dan LeClair, speaking for the international accreditation institution AACSB, shared a new vision where business schools become agents of innovation and change, enabling global prosperity. A session organized by professors from Germany, Australia, UK and USA invited us to think of the social, economic and ecological limitations we are facing as a world civilization, and new ways to thrive in a post-growth economy.

Ecosystems of values are sustained by individuals. Ideas matter, they lead change. They drive innovation. We all know that thoughts create actions, and actions create change.
If Walt Disney's aim was to fire the imagination of what could be possible, and then making it happen, the location for this event was well chosen.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and LEAP!, the United Nations PRME Working Group on the Sustainability Mindset. The series aims to feature perspectives and insights from the 76th Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management Conference, Anaheim 2016. For more information about the Conference, visit www.aom.org.

Keywords: academia, sustainability, management, meaning, purpose, trust, stakeholders, impact, transformation, interconnectedness, economics, ecosystems