Belief systems in business

24 Apr

This post is about the influence of belief systems at corporate level – the ‘values’ of companies. By this is meant not only the overt expression of a belief system such as a particular religion, or atheism, or corporate capitalism or collectivism, but also the expression of convictions about life, conduct and purposes that may, often subconsciously, inform the decisions made by those who run businesses but are not readily identifiable.

A good case study in how private beliefs underpin business behaviour is the encryption of communications by software companies.  Here, strongly held personal beliefs by business owners and inventors may clash with the purposes of government to investigate crime. The point is well put by Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp, reported in The Times, 2017-03-27:

Now that many governments eschew official religious affiliation, they must compete with corporations in the validity of their belief systems. For example, WhatsApp declares that privacy of communications is a ‘core belief’ of theirs. As is well known, Tim Cook of Apple also believes that law enforcement should not be able get into their smartphones by subverting built-in security. 

My point here is not to question where those attitudes and beliefs – for beliefs they are – come from or how valid or invalid they might be. It is that belief systems, or if not systems then perhaps disconnected convictions, are central to business behaviour. The notion that business entities can exist and operate in a purely commercial belief vacuum is a fantasy, and a dangerous one. Dangerous because unless we can perceive and map this landscape of often competing beliefs and then plot a course through it, we are just aimless wanderers in a jungle inhabited by extremely competitive individuals and entities who will do everything to defend their point of view. These points of view are no doubt often driven by greed and the desire for money and power. As such, masquerading as noble aims and purposes is effective in gaining support.

Since beliefs are so crucial to the successful integration of business and society, the big question is: what belief system are we going to espouse and support? There is much work being done to identify appropriate models for business behaviour in the new global economy. Examples include the work of the European Bahá’í Business Forum that accepts the importance of belief as a key driver informing economic behaviour.

It may seem odd to recommend a particular belief system in this way but in the war of beliefs that is taking place out there, the key question is: whose side are you on? We are all, consciously or not, living in a world where powerful corporations and governments are driven by beliefs, and are seeking to impose those convictions on everyone. We had better be clear about this as consumers and citizens.

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