Editor’s Note: The late Willis Harman, Ph.D. (1918-1997) was a remarkable and multifaceted person. Philosopher, scientist, visionary, futurist—these are just some of the titles he earned during his time on earth.
Willis played a very special role in conceiving and forming the World Business Academy, not to mention his enormous contributions to society through his speaking, writing, and life example. His vision of the world was one where business would share “responsibility for the whole,” a foundational idea of the Academy. Willis will be missed. Fortunately his writing and thinking live on. Published in 1987, “Why is There a World Business Academy?” remains deeply relevant today. -Rinaldo S. Brutoco, Founding President of the Academy
Why is There a World Business Academy?
A Personal View by Willis Harman, originally published in 1987
In the latter part of the 1980’s I joined with several businesspersons to found the World Business Academy. I did so as a result of two convictions – convictions that I had developed as a result of 16 years spent working with strategic planning and research on the future. One of these convictions is that the modern world is undergoing a period of fundamental transformation, the extent and meaning of which we who are living through it are only beginning to grasp. The other conviction is that the role of business in that transformation is absolutely crucial.
The Academy is basically a network of business executives and entrepreneurs who have come to similar conclusions, and who find a personal motivation to help this transformation come about smoothly in the process discovering deeper meaning for their own lives.
The Distinction Between “Change” and “Transformation”
In using the word ‘transformation’ I mean something different from simply ‘change.’ We have all experienced rapid, life-transforming, technological change throughout our lives; I don’t mean that. (Although technological advance does have something to do with bringing forth the forces for transformation.) There are those among us who foresee a great catastrophe – economic collapse, ecological megadisaster, nuclear holocaust, worldwide anarchy and terrorism; I don’t mean that either. Nor do I mean a transformation in which we turn to the bucolic life: putting away our rational minds and much of our technology and looking to astrology, ‘vibes,’ crystals, or periodic conversations with discarnate ‘entities’ in order to receive guidance.
The closest comparison I can make is with the scientific revolution. The rise of empirical science in the 17th century amounted to a shift in the basic way people perceive reality. The world as seen by a person living in Western Europe in the year 1600 was still the world of the Middle Ages. The universe was experienced as alive and imbued with purpose. In this reality, all creatures were part of a Great Chain of Being with man between the angels and lower animals. The world was enchanted, infused with spirit; there was ample place for miracles and Divine intervention. By 1700 the educated person literally perceived a different reality. He saw essentially a dead universe, constructed and set in motion by the Creator, with subsequent events accounted for by mechanical forces and lawful behaviors. Man was seen as a separate from nature, and potentially controlling nature through scientific knowledge and technological prowess. This shift in the perception of reality spread out from Europe and eventually transformed every institution and way of life in a major portion of the world. It marked the transition from the medieval to the modern era.
What is happening now is similar in that the perception of reality is again shifting at that same deep level of the most basic assumptions about the nature of man/woman in the cosmos and about what is ultimately important. If this observation is correct, it means that the world of the 21st century will be as different from the present as the present is from the Middle Ages. And the difference will not be because society changed further in the same directions – exponentially increasing global population and economic activity and a rapidly changing technological environment – but rather because we are striking out in a dramatically new direction.
The Forces For Transformation
What are the bases from which one could draw such a conclusion? Essentially, there are three:
1. People are becoming aware that continued growth and change in the same direction modern society has been headed would lead to intolerable problems on a planetary scale, many of them already foreshadowed;
2. Indications of widespread and fundamental cultural changes are already visible; and
3. More basic still, there are indications of a ‘new picture of reality,’ or a ‘new story,’ which is the most convincing reason to anticipate what the jargon these days terms a ‘paradigm shift.’
- Every society on Earth has been influenced by the Western, modern, industrial paradigm – most of them profoundly so. This has brought undeniable benefits, but also problems. The hazards of modern weapons of mass destruction, environmental deterioration, man-made climate change and toxic waste are well-known. The propagation of the Western paradigm appears to have contributed to the world population problem in that it has contributed to reduce mortality rates and also, in ways less understood, increase fertility rates. It has impacted traditional societies in many regions in such a way as to contribute to chronic hunger and poverty. These systematic problems will not be solved by present political and technological approaches. Taken together, they present such a powerful challenge that they can only be satisfactorily resolved through fundamental changes in the prevailing values and dominant institution of modern society.
- Around the globe, there are indications of significant cultural changes. People everywhere are less willing to put up with despotic regimes, and challenge their legitimacy using the watchwords ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy.’ In the South, those who had, for so long, accepted the role of privation, inferiority, and servility are less and less willing to do so; they are seeking fundamental change in the institutions that have held them in that role. In the rich countries of the North, a major cultural shift seems to be underway, spearheaded by such movements as ‘Green’ thinking, ‘deep ecology,’ new concepts of management and leadership, and the feminist critique of prevailing assumptions and values in modern society. The two chief components of this shift appears to be holism (understanding in terms of whole systems and organisms rather than fragments; nonseparateness; ecological thinking; appreciation of ‘everything connected to everything’ in a single unity), and reliance on the inner authority and inner resources (trust in the ‘inner knowing’ of a deep spiritual center; awareness of the extent to which ‘we create our reality’).
Together, these two forces (the ‘push’ of the global dilemmas and the ‘pull’ of a vision of what could be) define and actuate the incipient global transformation. But its real depth is implied by a third force, namely the shifting ‘picture of reality.’
- Modern industrial society, like every other history, rest on some set of largely tacit, basic assumptions about who we are, what kind of universe we are in, and what is ultimately important to us. The Scientific materialism, which so confidently held for us answers to these questions a couple of generations ago, is a dying orthodoxy. Its basic positivistic and reductionistic premises are being replaced by some sort of transcendentalist belief that includes increased faith in reason guided by deep intuition. In other words, a respiritualization of society is taking place, but one more experiential and noninstitutionalized, less fundamentalist and sacredotal, than most of the historically familiar forms of religion. Science, in turn, is reassessing its foundation assumptions to better accommodate the human spirit and the conscious awareness that compromise our most direct Link with reality. Such a change in basic assumptions must inevitably be accomplished by a long-term shift in value emphasis and priorities.
The Likelihood of Sudden Radical Change
Implicit in this picture of a transition from the modern age to something else is the expectation that all institutions can be expected to go through major changes, particularly the dominant industrial, economic and financial institutions. It is reasonable to question whether such a transfiguration of the modern world could possibly happen over short period of a few decades. The great convincer here is the peaceful revolution of Eastern Europe during the final months of 1989.
It would not have seemed realistic, in the mid-1980s, to think of the profound changes that had actually taken place in Eastern Europe by the end of the decade. When masses of people change from perceiving the locus of authority to the external and make it internal; when masses of people recognize that they can challenge the legitimacy of whatever oppresses them – then the balance of power between institutions and people shifts. Change that would otherwise seem quite improbable suddenly becomes possible. This is not to suggest that a profound transformation can be manipulated into being. But when the inner changes have quietly taken place over time, the consequent outer change can take place with remarkable rapidity.
The majority of people in the West are just becoming aware that forces for radical change have been mounting and may be close to that critical mass. This is not the classical revolutionary force of the oppressed. It is, rather, the revolutionary awareness that we have been oppressing ourselves with a belief system that we bought into, a believe system on which our whole techno-economic structure rest and which is not compatible with a viable future for human society on the planet. Even many of those who have been most successful at rising to positions of affluence and power in the present system have begun to question whether that is ultimately satisfying in terms of the way they invest their lives.
Even as these questions are raised, the main features of the new vision are becoming apparent. For however real the problems of the world may be, a negative problem-focused obsession is not the most desirable basis for decision and action. The great achievements of industry and technology, of private enterprise and democracy, did not come about through focusing on the negative conditions from which humans were attempting to escape, but rather through an entrepreneurial response to the vision and the challenge of making things better. Similarly, the best reason for involvement with issues of social change and global development is the positive challenge of creating a better world than the one we have known.
Finding a Better Way
The New World concepts of the 19th and early 20th centuries provided inspiration for peoples around the globe. The long-term evolutionary vision represented in those goals can be fairly well summed up in three components:
1. Increasing awareness and mastery of life as embodied in the open inquiry of science, the application of technology to improve standard of living, and the free search for appropriate guiding beliefs and values.
2. Liberation as exemplified in the political ideal of personal liberty within a lawful order, the economic ideal of private enterprise, and the cultural ideal of Individuation.
3. Democratization as exemplified in the social ideals of free education and public dissemination of scientific knowledge, the economic ideal of equal opportunity, and the political ideal of participatory democracy.
In recent decades this nation and much of the industrialized world have departed seriously from the evolutionary vision. Awareness and mastery become reduced to utilitarian science in the service of technology, and to technology in the service of mindless economic growth and unremitting militarism. Liberation stopped far short of economic and physiological liberation of those in the Third World who had recently acquired political liberation. (It also, until recently, failed to include woman.) Even where the forms of democracy were presented, that has not always guaranteed effective ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Assuming that these three long-term evolutionary goals are still capable of inspiring the morale they once did, A future which involves their fulfillment is both more attractive and less threatening than either the mindless consumption-and-growth model or a concept of ‘transformation’ that implies voyaging into a totally uncharted future. As we attempt to read the forces for change, is appears that what people are demanding is a system in which these three long-term evolutionary goals are more nearly attained than they have been in the world system that evolved after World War II. It is in this light that we can understand some of the emerging positive tendencies, such as:
- The concept of work as life enhancement and fulfillment prevailing over the concept of work as a commodity traded on the labor markets.
- Business organizations more clearly dedicated to providing opportunities for meaningful and fulfilling work for those who invest their lives, and less slavishly subservient to the financial goals of the absentee shareholders (Who only invest money).
- More informal, alternative economies and more human exchange outside the mainstream economy.
- Worldwide emphasis on cooperative global development with a wide diversity of alternative development paths for different societies.
- Better opportunities for small organizations and reduction of bureaucracy in large organizations.
- Widespread attitudes of cooperation and trust; recognition of the disbenefits of vicious competition.
- Important roles for nonprofit and voluntary sectors.
- Values and incentives that foster care of the earth – its life-support processes, its resources, and the beauties of its wildernesses.
- Corporations deriving their ‘just power’ from the consent of all those stakeholders whose lives are affected by corporate activities.
It doesn’t matter whether or not we have a totally accurate picture of this ‘paradigm shift;’ the questions implied in recognizing the transformation possibility are extremely important ones to raise. The World Business Academy was founded to promote a worldwide dialogue about those questions among business leaders everywhere. Businesspersons are inclined to activity, so we need not doubt that when there is clarity about desirable actions, there will also be action.
What is the Task?
If the action is to be pertinent to the needs, we must address the question: What are the task to which enlightened business is called? It is essential to realize that they are functions of history; they change with time. Right now, the most important task may be to promote broader understanding, and maybe some enthusiasm about, a change in paradigm that will be good for ourselves, good for relationships, good for the environment, and good for the planet. But that awareness raising has already been going on for quite a while – not just by business leaders, but by vast numbers of people throughout all of the modern world for at least a quarter of the century.
If we are indeed approaching the point of ‘critical mass’ where people suddenly realized (as in late 1989 Eastern Europe) – that in some fundamental way illegitimacy of the present techno-economic system, and the values and beliefs that underlie it, has to be challenged, then the task shifts. If the transformation starts to happen with such rapidity that it generates a good deal of fear – fear of instability, of economic collapse, of mass unemployment, of an uncertain future, of the ‘crazies’ in our midst – then the one thing people will crave most is stability. The overriding concern will be how the transition can be managed; how balance can be maintained; how we can keep the machine on the tracks. At that point the critical task changes (as the reconstruction task in Eastern Europe in the 1990s is completely different from the awareness-raising task of the 1980s).
That is the time that the really critical role of business comes in. All this is preparation for the truly crucial time in history when somebody has to reassure the fearful that the needed transformation can be accomplished without a lot of social disruption and attendant human misery. The experience of business leaders can be critical at that point – assuming that they are sensitive and aware enough to play a constructive rather than reactionary role.
Business has become, in this last half-century, the most powerful institution on the planet; it is critical that the dominant institution in any society take responsibility for the whole, as the church did and in the days of the Holy Roman Empire. But business has not had such a tradition. This is a new role, not yet well understood and accepted. Built into the concept of capitalism and free enterprise from the beginning was the assumption that the actions of many units of individual enterprise, responding to market forces – what Adam Smith called the ‘invisible hand’ would somehow add up to the desirable outcomes. But in the last decade of the 20th century, it had become clear that the ‘invisible hand’ is faltering. It depended upon consensus of overarching meanings and values that are no longer present. Given our present conditions, business has to adopt a new tradition of responsibility for the whole by defining Its own interests in a wider perspective of society. Every decision that is made, every action that is taken must be viewed in light of that responsibility. This requires more than incremental adjustments; it calls for a fundamental redefinition of business as a social partner.
And that, to me, is what the World Business Academy is really about. It is not just another association of businesspersons to exchange information and foster collegiality. It is about investing ourselves in a task of historic proportions. Some will be called to this task and many will not. Those who are will find it to be extremely gratifying and fulfilling.
The future of human society is intimately linked to the future of the world economy and business organizations. Whether or not the global future is bright or dark, and whether the path to it is smooth or strewn with human misery, depends in large measure on whether transnational corporations can evolve into effective instruments for promoting human and community development – or instead become predominantly viewed as a threat to the development of a sane, humane, and ecologically sound global society. Whatever the answers to the difficult questions we face may turn out to be, and whatever development paths the nations of the world may choose, the role of international private sector will be key, both in the opportunities it creates and the problems to which it can contribute if its actions are unenlightened.
But achieving a desirable future also depends on the vitality of small enterprise (and small units within large organizations) to provide the kind of community in meaningful work, which enhances life. For one of our mistakes in the modern era has been to treat work as though it were mere labor, something to be avoided by turning it over to machines. If human beings basically sought to escape work, industrialization might be considered a total success, since it has made possible the elimination of so much of the chore work that humans once had to do. But both from observation of worker behavior and from the findings of psychological research, there is ample evidence that people basically seek meaningful activities and relationships. Humans thrive not on meaningless pleasure, but on challenge.
All of history supports the observation that the desire to create is a fundamental urge in humankind. Fundamentally, we work to create, and only incidentally do we work to eat. That creativity may be in relationships, communication, service, art, or useful products. It comes close to being the central meaning of our lives. The world has never found a more congenial environment for creative work than small free enterprise.
I firmly believe that there is no single factor more critical in influencing whether or not we achieve a humanely, ecologically, and spiritually satisfying future for the society and for humanity, than a free, aware, responsible and vital private sector – profit and nonprofit. In all the ways discussed above, and more, business will have a shaping effect on the future. The Academy’s self-imposed task is to bring as much enlightenment as possible to that shaping.