The End of the Corporation

Companies are struggling to find a strategy to survive the realities of doing business in a digital world.

Erik P.M. Vermeulen
Sep 1 · 5 min read
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Yesterday, I asked Siri: “What is the purpose of a corporation?”

A tricky question, right? But wow. Within seconds, Siri came back with a list of possible answers. It appears that this question caused lots of excitement last week.

On August 19, the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of leading companies in the United States, changed their view that corporations mainly exist to serve their investors. In a new statement, corporate leaders made it clear that the purpose of a corporation is to create value for everyone who is somehow involved in the business.

This statement triggered a lot of “talk” online (Twitter, blogs, newspaper articles, etc.).

What surprised me though was the negative response. “The statement is just window-dressing. A cheap and easy way to address anti-corporate sentiment.” “Business leaders are using the statement as a defense mechanism against activist investors.” The statement is a Dr. Evil-type scheme to take over the corporate world.”

But when I read the statement, I thought it was nothing more than the first step in acknowledging the end of the corporation. Corporate leaders were pointing out something that I have been witnessing over the last decade (based on my own personal experience in a multinational company).

The corporation, as we know it, is being disrupted and something very different is emerging.

In the age of the maturing internet, more than 3 billion powerful smartphones and emerging technologies (such as artificial intelligence, robots, and sensors), it isn’t realistic to think that businesses should still operate as static corporate hierarchies that were first designed in the seventeenth century.

We are living in the greatest time in history

Digital technologies are turning the world upside down.

Think about it. Digital technologies have changed consumer behavior. Consumers don’t appreciate mass production anymore. Brand loyalty is increasingly fragile.

Digital technologies have made consumers way more knowledgeable and sophisticated. They will only stay if “products” offer them a meaningful and personalized experience. They expect data and data analytics to deliver more advanced services and “user feedback.” Social media has given them the “voice” to express their views and educate themselves about a business’ performance.

The same can be said about employees. People are no longer satisfied with the prospects of becoming anonymous cogs in a hierarchical corporate machine. They are looking to maximize their personal potential. They want to do things that they care passionately about.

The digital transformation has created an unprecedented degree of choice. There are endless possibilities. Employees don’t stay because it is hard to walk away. They stay if they have the opportunity to engage in a meaningful life project through “work.” The younger generation that started to work at my company all left as soon as the job didn’t offer them that sense of fulfilment anymore. “Last-in first-out” has become the new normal.

Finally, digital technologies are empowering investors as well. Artificial intelligence tools that analyze website traffic and social media engagement offer institutional and other professional investors a better understanding of a company’s growth opportunities and prospects. Smart analysis of earnings transcripts helps investors capture and assess management sentiment.

One strategy that will work

Forward-thinking business leaders understand that they have to “create value for all stakeholders.” It is not so much about keeping them all happy. It’s about creating an environment — or an ecosystem — in which they feel valued. Successful business leaders don’t know, show, and control (as if they are “the smartest guys in the room”). Instead, they provide the context for communication, collaboration, and co-creation.

This was an impossible task in the 20th century. But with the exponential growth of technology, involving stakeholders and gathering feedback from them has never been easier. To remain relevant, every business must become a tech business.

But there is another quick way to get instantaneous and consequential input: having an open and inclusive dialogue with stakeholders, using digital and social media platforms. To remain relevant, every business must also become a media business.

I see examples everywhere.

Philips, a Dutch multinational in healthcare, has shifted its annual report from a dry, legalistic report that no one reads into an interactive content experience for the company’s broader stakeholder community, using various communication strategies and online platforms.

Microsoft has appointed a Chief Storyteller to help stakeholders (including society) understand who they are, what they do, and why they exist. The move certainly helped Microsoft rediscovering its “soul.”

Other examples that increased stakeholder engagement and offered companies a window into different stakeholders’ perspectives are: (1) Jeff Bezos’ yearly letter to the shareholders; (2) “Millennial” representation on the board of Starbucks; (3) the appointment of a social media influencer on the board of AirAsia to make the board more susceptible to the new generation stakeholders; and (4) the use of Twitter as a business/communication tool by Anand Mahindra, executive chairman of Mahindra and Mahindra.

The emergence of ecosystems

Across all sectors of the economy, we can see changes in how businesses are structured. Smart business leaders understand that they need to reinvent themselves.

The “corporate” CEOs of the Business Roundtable understand that this pressure is real, and it is existential. If they don’t adapt, their businesses will die. And even if they can’t articulate a clear vision of the future, they do know that the purpose of the corporation is evolving.

I don’t think we should dismiss this trend as some cosmetic PR exercise or evil plot. I just think it reflects their struggle to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

Digital technologies have created a new culture of transparency, engagement and choice. The secretive, closed and controlled world of corporations, which was so effective in delivering economic and social development, is now out of touch with the values of a digital world.

Businesses are increasingly organized as open, inclusive ecosystems. They no longer operate as distinct corporate entities with a few joint venture and alliances. Instead, they tap into much wider communities and networks to grow and sustain their businesses.

Perhaps, it won’t be long before Siri links to articles on “business organizations” when asked the question: “what is an ecosystem?”

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Erik P.M. Vermeulen

Written by

Fascinated about how new technologies are turning the world upside down. Sharing what I learn as a writer, teacher, and traveler.

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