Is Your Company Searching for Meaning?

A new generation of businesses turn to social responsibility in its search for purpose and significance.

In his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Peter Drucker sheds light on the amazing climb to success of Rank Xerox and Gillette. He attributes this to the novel nature at the essence of what they do. He explains that had Rank Xerox planned to manufacture and sell copiers, its chances for development would have been severely jeopardized at the time when carbon paper copies were filling up file cabinets in offices everywhere. 

At the time, buying a copier was much too expensive, if not counter-productive. No company would have invested in a service that already existed and was working in another form. The stroke of genius  attributed to Rank Xerox was that he decided to give the copier away and sell the copies. The cost of the machine was paid off with the volume of copies made – a strategy that has proven itself, time and time again. Its success story is well known. 

The story of Gillette has a similar narrative. If the company set out to sell razors when American men patronized barber shops, Gillette’s success would have been drastically reduced. A better idea would have been to hand out razors and sell razor blades to satisfy consumer needs on a daily basis. Selling razors was not a good idea; selling personal shaving was. Bingo! 

Lesson learned: For a business to prosper it needs to have a clear definition of what it does and how it does it, and how it all fits into the marketplace.

Giving a business a larger meaning is a complex exercise fueled by some sober questioning.  “Do I manufacture copy machines?” “Do I sell copy machines?” “Am I an industrial or a service company?” Defining what a company does requires that tasks be outlined, and clearly conveyed to employees as well as consultants, investors, and clients. 

Rank Xerox and Gillette are examples that reflect the industrial and economic fabric at a specific moment in time. Today’s companies also need to take into account social responsibility, the backbone of ethically-sound principles capable of steering corporate ambitions. 

Does L’Oréal sell cosmetics or youth and hope? Does Véolia just treat water in India, or does it support life? Does the Post Office merely sort letters and packages, or does it distribute social ties? Social responsibility instills meaning into a company’s culture. Today it is   indispensable. It defines the role a company will play in both the economy and society at a time when technological strides and money-making initiatives are no longer adequate in measuring how far we have come. Giving meaning to what is designed, made, and sold is the new paradigm of winning businesses.

Christian Guellerin has been president of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Art and Media since 2007. Under his leadership the organization grew from 80 to 178 establishments in 44 countries in 2008; today they’re expanding to China and India. He is also the executive director of the École de design Nantes Atlantique, which trains professionals to create and innovate for socio-economic development, with an interface between technology, economics, and the sciences. He writes frequently on design and pedagogy and teaches in several schools and universities in France and abroad.

Read more posts from Christian Guellerin here.

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