Quakers and Business Group
Promoting Quaker values in Business and the Workplace

Minute of the Quaker Business Conference 2015 - What is the purpose of business?

Friends House, London, 4th November 2015.

Quaker Business Conference

On Wednesday 4th November 2015 over 90 friends, including 17 students from Quaker schools, gathered at Friends House to consider what is the purpose of business. This was the 11th annual conference of the Quakers and Business Group. The conference began with meeting for worship.

Tim Phillips, Elder of Q&B, opened the conference with the quotes "The business of business is peace" and "Power is accountable to those whom it affects". He highlighted that while Q&B is focused on the practicality not the theory and theology of business, Quakers recognise that these lie at the root of our practice. He also mentioned his experience in the boardroom as often reflecting the focus on financial return for shareholders rather than the interests of all stakeholders.

Giles Hutchins gave the first presentation on the future of business. He spoke about "business as usual" being no longer an option. We are dealing with unceasing transformation. A shift in logic from linear to realising organisations as living entities. Some organisations, known as B Corps, are now changing their legal constitutions to focus on returns for all stakeholders rather than short term financial returns.

He outlined that we need to change the way we create and deliver value including the way we relate to each other and the conditions conducive for life. He referred to Gnosis as a deeper way of being, beyond ego which leads to small steps with great love. Giles proposed considering the impact of business on our children as fundamental.

Professor Colin Meyer then provided a brief history of corporations and models for the future. Adapting Shakespeare, Colin described the 6 ages of corporations from early merchants through public, private, financial, transnational to mindful corporations. Colin suggested that ownership is not just a control vehicle but a commitment vehicle, with corporations committing to the purpose of the company and delivering it.

Colin pointed the way forward as corporations owned by foundations and cited the example of the public benefits corporations in the USA where directors are accountable for the delivery of societal benefits.

He concluded that we need to rebuild trust and combine economic efficiency with ethics. Competitiveness depends on moral fibre.

Love and profit, by David Papa spoke about Richard Sheridan who set up Menlo Innovations which has the sole focus to create a workplace of joy. Richard Sheridan managed to develop one of the most successful software companies and wrote the book Joy Inc. This book Showed that a joyful team equals a committed team. David spoke about taking care of the inside to see results on the outside.

Why are employees not the number one priority of organisations? The first reason is a dependency on the Survival mode where your fear creates a hoarding mentality. However if the fear is articulated and acknowledged then change can result. The second reason is around addressing internal issues. By nurturing oneself, one is enabled to help others.

The highest purpose of business is to care for the people inside the business.

Tamsin Fulton spoke on learning from the Buurtzorg model. Tamsin's organisation Public World looks at participatory approaches to improving public services.

These have been applied in the Netherlands to care of the elderly in their own homes through the Buurtzorg model. Buurtzorg have grown to 9,800 nurses in 800 independently managed teams serving 70,000 patients. The Netherlands was facing the same care issues that we are dealing with in the UK which were resulting in lower care quality and higher costs. Clients were also confronted with many caregivers. Buurtzorg started in 2006 looking at growing small teams who organise all elements of care delivery. The heart of the model is to support independence and delivering the best level of care. Providers of informal care are seen as critical and have a vital role. The Organisation has optimal autonomy and no hierarchy. Nurses are generalists and have access to user friendly IT to support their work. The model is shown to be highly cost effective and provide better care.

An interview session was lead by Katherine Long.

Charles Wookey of Blue print for better business spoke about the breakdown of trust between business and society. In response a model of five principles was developed that looks to understand the person and the business ecosystem. This enables corporations to have a purpose other than profit.

Nick Pyatt of Quakers and Business Group works in forestry looking at sustainability and its impact of on business. He enables businesses to work out options which increase their sustainability. He notices a growing number of leaders that are willing to make space for change.

Both speakers were encouraged by the numbers of young people who see how important it is to work for companies that make a difference to the world.

An open session collected individual group's reflections and questions:

  • Who decides public interest? Do our actions show this? Who are organisations for?
  • Government is vested in old approach.
  • New paradigm business... We should say it's the most important thing to stand up and talk about it.
  • Paradigm and small shifts both matter. Both are happening.
  • Purpose of business ... Changing focus from profit to benefit leads to more profit and success. Doing the right thing also leads to long term success. What is the right thing?
  • How does radical change happen - through heart and soul. We are the mechanism for transformation. Having a sense of purpose. There is an urgency for wise and loving action.
  • How can we help educate the leaders of the future. Quaker schools, universities?
Graham Randles gave us a thought provoking session, taking us through New Economics Foundation's thinking.

It's a huge challenge to redesign a sustainable economy is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. We need to become more equal, more sustainable.

The purpose of business should be to meet our needs. But this doesn't need to be the cheapest way.

Profit focus has dominated since 1970/80s with Milton Friedman, and has been around since the 1950s. We need to change again and a shift is happening. Profits are required but not maximized at all costs, and constantly grown. We were shown the impossible hamster video clip, which highlights that growth without limits is simply increasing resource use. NEF is proposing new measures for our economy such as happy life years. (Also look at the happy planet index). The UK is doing well on health and well being but less well on good jobs, equality and environment.

How can we help? Campaigns and messaging which connect personally. Invest your money wisely, tell your pension funds not to invest in oil for example. Support new companies which behave well.

We finished by looking at the circular economy and trying not to let the language of 'externalities' let firms off the hook. A very engaging session despite it being the end of a very full, interesting and well moderated and organised day.

Tim Phillips closed the day by thanking Triodos Bank for sponsoring the conference and we concluded with a short period of silence.

The speakers' presentations can be downloaded here.