Programme Lead, Society, Values and Governance, World Economic Forum
“Companies need to evolve their culture to anticipate changes that haven't yet taken place”
How does the World Economic Forum contribute to the culture and values debate?
To answer this, you have to look at the Forum’s mission and its 45-year history of bringing business leaders and non-business stakeholders together to exchange views. When Professor Klaus Schwab founded the World Economic Forum in 1971, he had a vision of a multi-stakeholder approach to business – looking at how companies create value for allthe people whose lives they touch. Today that seems obvious to many, but it was quite an unusual approach at the time, and is more important than ever in today’s turbulent times. Indeed the theme of our most recent annual meeting in Davos in January this year refocused participants on the meaning of “Responsive and Responsible Leadership”.
Why do values matter in the current business context?
A first factor that makes values relevant today is the growing demand from different stakeholder groups to see organisations act in a way that creates a positive impact on society. This demand is shaping the views of business leaders. Many of those who participate at our main event in Davos recognise the importance of building organisations that fulfil a societal purpose. The Sustainable Development Goals are also acting as a catalyst for many organisations to define their wider contribution to society. The World Economic Forum itself is oriented around a core set of System Initiatives, ranging from food security to healthcare to gender parity, offering a platform for organisations to focus on social and economic challenges to which they can align their values and contribute expertise and resources.
A second factor is technology. We are witnessing the advent of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’, where a convergence of physical, digital, and biological innovations is redefining entire industries, not to mention our health, environment and lifestyles. The scale, pace and impact of this revolution is such that it’s hard to plan for. Policy-making and regulatory frameworks aren’t very well adapted to these rapid changes. Going forward, it will become harder to implement a common set of rules that can cover every eventuality or externality of adopting new technologies, so it is likely that we will need to shift to more principlesdriven approaches to regulation. This shift creates a great opportunity for businesses to identify, together with their employees and stakeholders from society, the principles and values they want to stand for, and define ways to ensure these principles are applied, even where there isn’t a rule or a law dictating how to act as an organisation.
What trends do you currently observe that impact culture and values within organisations?
We see among business leaders a willingness to move towards a business approach that focuses on purpose, values, and employee wellbeing. A strong focus on values is also important for young people. When we surveyed 26,000 millennials in 2016, we found that they have a desire for integrity, honesty and transparency. When asked about their expectations towards managers and colleagues, integrity comes on top of the list.
Another trend is the transformative impactthat technology is having on the workplace. By allowing organisations to move from a physical office space to a flex-work system, technology is creating opportunities to build more diverse workplaces that allow employees with varied personal or family situations to continue thriving in their careers. A strong and shared set of values among colleagues is essential to underpin interactions that are increasingly taking place in the virtual workspace.
However new technologies also raise a number of challenging questions, not least the uncertainty around the long-term impacts of technology on employment and economic and social inclusion. We see a desire for companies to be much more involved in public discussions about the ethical implications of the way they do business, the new products and services they are exploring and their impact on society.
It’s a conversation that companies need to have with their employees, because employees are often motivated by being part of groundbreaking advances in new technologies, but don’t want to be part of an organisation that intentionally or inadvertently creates harm for society. Here again, values can act as a reference point as part of these conversations.
What factors will companies need to take into account regarding culture and values in the future?
The pressure coming from technology will only intensify, and it’s going to have a major impact on employees. Businesses need to think about how they can maintain a human-centric approach in that context. They have to promote a culture of lifelong learning, where employees are not just expected to contribute to today’s bottom line, but also supported in developing their own skills and purpose. With changes happening so rapidly, employees need to have a chance to transition to the next type of role or organisation, to maintain financial and personal stability while staying motivated to achieve their career aspirations.
Companies will also need to evolve their culture to better anticipate changes that haven’t yet taken place. When we engage Davos participants in debates about business models, policy-making or disruption, we often frame them as ‘what-if’ conversations. We try to think creatively about what could happen tomorrow and how business can prepare for such a future. Adopting a ‘what-if’ mentality is a huge cultural shift, which can be applied to thinking about new products and services but also imagining the social and political impacts of new technologies and new ways of working.