BUSINESS, in today’s world, is ripe with paradoxes and bulging with surprises. On the one hand, it is largely unsustainable, responsible for much of the environmental degradation going on around the planet, and all too often far from humane. Yet at the same time, developing within the business world are some of the most promising approaches for building a humane and sustainable culture.
The first key to untangling these paradoxes and seeming contradictions lies in understanding that "business" – people producing more than their personal needs of some item or service to exchange for other items produced by other people – is, like "the family," a very old and transcultural human activity. Businesses existed long before the industrial era, even before cities, and they are likely to exist long after such ideas as "capitalism" and "socialism" have been relegated to the history books. Much of what is "wrong" with business activities today is not inherent in business itself, but reflects the underlying culture of which current business is a part.
The second key is that business, like all the other major institutions in our society, is in the midst of a profound transition. When we look around us, what we see superimposed, like a multiple exposure, are many different styles of business, some of them reflecting obsolete cultural assumptions, some reflecting the current conditions of our transitional period, and some, perhaps, reflecting the patterns of a genuinely positive future. To make this even more confusing, many of us carry around in our heads attitudes and assumptions about business that are decades (at least) out of date.
The focus of this issue of IN CONTEXT is on untangling our understanding of business as a cultural institution, and then exploring some of the myriad avenues open today for creating new ways of working together. It is about our workplaces as human systems – from the single self-employed person to large organizations. As a theme, it is closely related to our two previous themes. Our working and business relationships complement the more intimate domain of "friends and lovers" as one of the most important social areas of our lives. Similarly because business is like the engine of society, changes in the business world offer a high impact strategy for cultural change.
Come and explore with us. The human and planetary potential of living business is enormous.
The guest editor for this issue is Leslie Ehle, a management consultant, trainer and writer. She brought with her the strong support of the Organizational Transformation network, and has enriched this issue in myriad ways, both visible and invisible. Thank you, Leslie.