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What It Means To Put Humanity At The Center Of Business In The 21st Century

Sesil Pir Contributor Feb 10, 2020,03:36am EST

Three weeks ago, the World Economic Forum held its 50th annual meeting, with the theme of “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World.” Across a variety of sittings, the Forum focused on renewing the concept of stakeholder capitalism, community engagement and platform capabilities to support global, regional and national initiatives that can possibly generate a positive impact for all stakeholders. At the same time, the Forum announced its wish to rejuvenate the Davos Manifesto to re-imagine its purpose and a clear scorecard for companies and governments.

Indeed, influential businesses such as Microsoft, Unilever, Infosys and Visa announced their commitment to sourcing 100% of their global electricity consumption from renewable sources in pursue of environmental sustainability during the week and just days after the Forum, The Guardian newspaper announced it would stop accepting advertisements from oil and gas companies to limit their financial ties to fossil fuel businesses.

The desire to ground community around a common purpose and a set of shared principles to provide sustained value creation is both timely and amicable; and, it is equally important to take a step back and understand why we are trying to put back humanity at the center of our businesses.

In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Shoshana Zuboff writes about regeneration of the most basic existential questions that have been asked for centuries around social strata, generations, society, wealth, power, etc. She explains how in many ways this era is similar to the industrial era and how surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data, which would arguably then be used for production of new technologies. She argues instead of labor, the current era feeds on various aspects of human’s experience and while industrial civilization flourished at the expense of nature, now, threatening our world, the information civilization will thrive at the expense of human nature, in time, threatening our humanity. Accordingly, she names a number of valid examples to make her case and raises a number of social economical and spiritual questions that deserve in depth discussion for their philosophies.

Unfortunately, when it comes to building spirituality into an organization—whether it is a family, a corporation or a government, we have got it a bit wrong. The majority of us carry a bias in our hearts against any cause that feels non-economical in value. Admittedly or not, most of us associate the word “spiritual” with religion. In reality, the word originates from Old Latin word of “spiritus,” which refers to soul, courage, vigor, breath, implying liveliness across life experiences.

Businesses, as centers of activity, are uniquely positioned to carry a spirit (and do so), yet, the idea going back to the core purpose of business or the call to re-focus on humanity feels like a catch phrase to many. Some understand it as a suggestion for only caring about the human-beings, others understand it as swapping employees for key stakeholders, others believe it is yet another humanitarian movement raised by a few disadvantaged colleagues.

The Enlarged Definition of Humanness

Though people undoubtedly should be a primary stakeholder for any organization and there is a legitimate need for future organizations to make employees a key priority, recognize the term ‘human’ expands way beyond a “human being” in its current philosophy.

In its most common usage, the word human generally refers to the only extant species of the genus Homo—anatomically and behaviorally describing modern Homo sapiens as we know it. In scientific terms, the meaning of human, we find has changed on several occasions pointing across a diverse group of animalistic species over time. In anthropology, some identify the category of the human with the species Homo sapiens, others equate it with the whole genus Homo, some restrict it to the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens while a few others take it to encompass the entire hominin lineage. Finally, in the discipline of psychology, humans designate a certain taxonomic category in which having a physiology is not sufficient to belong to the category.

You see? Although the concept of a human vastly varies in definition etymologically speaking, philosophers distinguish the linguistic meaning of indexical expressions from their content. As such, the content of an indexical is whatever it names.

Another example comes from a collaborative study between the University of Washington and Osaka University, professors Kahn et all., where scholars have jointly studied and tried to characterize what it means to be human to aid robotics design and interactions. They were able to name 10 different aspects of humanness ranging from practicing autonomy to engagement in creativity to carrying moral value and caring for reciprocity.

These descriptions are all relevant because they each provide different angles into the way we define something.

What we are witnessing for the way we have and continue to define a human is that humanness is and continues to be a direction. If we were to name it in poetry, it would likely read something like: “With every step I do, I walk to you, because who am I and who are you without each other?” In other words, there is a constant across many definitions that suggests there is a relational aspect to humanness. The Oxford English dictionary lists the “hu” of human represents the soul of any being—physical and other dimensional as a representative part of bigger creation. In that, any being with a soul, living and non-living, may exist but cannot thrive and reach its potential without the other/ the opposite.

Therefore, when we point to the growing need to focus on humanity as the center piece of our 21st century organizations, we are referring to human beings (you and me alike) as a key part, yes, and we are also referring to the nature and other beings’ whom which human beings cannot survive without as well as the collective and the robotics and intelligent machinery we will have to rely on/ live with in the future.

Indeed, in that dynamic reliance and interconnection lays the fundamentals of our terminology. Taxonomy is vastly critical to creating unprecedented experiences as it shapes our way of becoming, relating and doing/ working through philosophy.

The Benefits of Carrying a Humanity Focus

In order to challenge current claims and bearings of our way traditional way of working, once our taxonomy is enlarged, we must establish new bearings.

We cannot evaluate the trajectory of our businesses separate from civilization and without a clear appreciation for an enlarged definition of humanity. Just as we cannot separate technology from new world order or 21st century business, a business cannot single-handedly be oriented toward profit-making if we want to survive history. Business is not and can no longer be a thing in itself, isolated from economics, society or culture.

That centering around humanness brings relativity with a potential to drive equality and equity into the conversation that is otherwise missing. That centering gives us the benefit to claim every time we single out our focus—for example, when we only going after profit; every time we disintegrate or categorize—for example, when we look down on a new or a different player; or every time we separate in class—for example, when we choose to see certain groups fit for our culture, we are consciously or unconsciously breaking down multiplicities and relying on theories that no longer provide predictability. Realize when we are not actively working towards unity under a set of agreed upon values that honor all that’s going to support our individual and collective thriving equally and equitably, we are, indeed, dis-serving our initial intent and becoming blind sided for future possibilities.

On the other hand, when we can learn to integrate, to include and to innovate together, we are contributing to the creation of many and more prosperous opportunities we may not even be able to imagine... Take Goldman Sachs and Amazon, as an example, who are reportedly in talks about establishing a partnership in which the investment bank would offer small business loans to merchants through the e-commerce giant’s platform. What might such an arrangement mean for their current customer base or for those looking to pivot into entrepreneurship and the industry? What consumer opportunities we may be missing without the entertainment of such partnership possibilities?

Putting humanity back in the center of business is not only necessary for sustainable value creation and it is equally good for all stakeholders’ holistic well-being.

When in doubt, consider the 5Ps of a 21st century business: (1) Passion beyond ability brings intent to one’s sense of self-organizing. (2) Purpose beyond profit brings clarity to common mission. (3) Principles over value drives alignment and increases standards of quality. (4) Focus on potential enables impact beyond human beings—specifically toward society and environment. (5) People you think do not speak your language may come in as key stakeholders to save your business in a new market creation dynamic.

Research validates for us high performing organizations carry spirituality and they differ from the ordinary kind in that they have a much deeper connection and better self-righting mechanisms than their peers. The individual employees inside organizations, where we record sustained growth over time often demonstrate greater self-mastery and higher self-respect, thus, operating on a basis of trust, creativity and collaboration. They take full accountability jointly for dealing and resolving with issues in kind, even if doing so introduces more emotional risk for individuals’ singularly. Ultimately, these organizations see every single challenge as a collective opportunity. We can certainly multiply that through other organizations world-wide. The key remains in our intent and choices we make appropriately.

Remember, as paradoxical as it may seem, the success of businesses hoping to take advantage of this new revolution depends on their capacity to put humanity at the center. And by humanity, we don’t just point to single categories. For our life and work experiences to be reinvented, we must reflect on new ways of understanding and fulfilling people’s needs, a new economic model that can see beyond profit and a new social contract that can sustain it altogether. That’s exactly what the World Economic Forum is trying to drive with its revised manifesto.

Workplace transformations are no longer an aspect of the distant future. Where traditional value chains are being collapsed and new market innovations are being sought through by minute, we invite HR and business leaders to engage in a regenerative process and lead organizations to take advantage of a rapidly closing window to create a new future of work and equitable life experiences for all new century citizens.

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