The pandemic has given us an opportunity we would never have allowed ourselves to radically shake up the way that we see ourselves. Fundamental to this is the way that we identify ourselves in relation to each other. It has allowed us to look at our sense of community in a new way. For a long time, our communities have been defined by geography. Is now the time to revisit this definition and see whether we need be so constrained?
As we leave the current pandemic crisis, we can look back at what Jonathan Stubbs calls “the trial we never would have given ourselves” and a glimpse into the future of work. One of those is the change in our idea of community, and how we define those groups to which we identify. Ever since Martin Buber stated that “the place is community”, the concept of community (in terms of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft) has been strongly tied to geography.
The concept of Community of Place likely dates back to the creation of the nation state, where a sense of identity was forged based on a shared geographical location. Before, community was defined by Relationship, the people with whom you aligned yourself, your identity tied to family or allegiance. Now, identity was aligned with geography. For before a Roman citizen could be an inhabitant of any country in the Empire, a speaker of any of various languages, with one of many cultural identities. Now, to be English meant to identify home as England, to be Romanian meant Romania. This quickly translated into other aspects of life too. Work became somewhere that activity took place – a factory, an office – with others who went to the same place. School became a venue for education. Our definition of our community, and by extension, our identity, became tied to the place we were born, the place that we live, the place that we work.
However, over time, this definition has been challenged. Community of Relationship never truly went away, although much weakened, but other models have risen. Increasing globalisation and pervasive communication have broken down the solidarity of Place. Instead, during the 1980s, we began to realise that Communities of Time were as important, and the rise of shared spaces continues to challenge the Communities of Place. What the pandemic has done is accelerate this change. No longer do people throng to the office. Instead, we meet at the same time online, what Ryan Anderson calls distributed working. The transition has been difficult for many, not least because many organisations and teams have attempted to recreate the sense of Community of Place virtually at the same time as trying to hold onto a Community of Time. We have also realised that Communities of Time are in themselves insufficient. We need something more.
The solution, I suggest, is not to go back to relying on Time or Place for our sense of Community. Rather, it is to look beyond these constraints to what the purpose of the community is. Over the last few decades, we have seen to rise of business with a purpose. A way to look at organisations as more than the sum of parts, with objectives that go beyond the pragmatic, Community of Purpose provides a powerful alternative to Place, and, with increasing globalisation, forms an antidote to the greater risk that we would lose community altogether.
Business now has an opportunity to look at their communities and redefine them, and there are external factors that mean that Communities of Purpose are likely to come to dominate. Fundamental to this is the inexorable rise of responsible business. Whether it be the response of businesses like AstraZeneca and Diageo whose alignment with social value was critical to the quashing of the pandemic, or the environmental and social values evident in the AGMs of companies held in 2021 like Unilever, where 99.6% of shareholders backed a radical climate transition plan, it is clear that Purpose beyond Profit is now firmly at the driving seat of many businesses. As the awareness that this also has very positive financial, HR and other business benefits grows, it is likely that this will spread even wider.
However, the rate of change is also likely to increase as there are a lot of positive feedbacks that push the growth of a broader Community of Purpose. Some of this will be driven by technology. For example, the greater availability of VR and MR (virtual and mixed reality) is likely to remove even more geographical constraints in more sectors, including enabling greater collaboration in design, more immersive education and training and more inclusive access to roles. Some of it will come from employees, who, as Edelman reports, are requiring increasingly high levels of social responsibility from their companies. Some will also come from the rise of a Community of Purpose amongst customers, who respond to what Smith and Alcorn called cause marketing, who exhibit high levels of brand loyalty and are often very vocal on social media. This often overlaps with the growing Community of Purpose amongst investors, as ESG requirements become the minimum standard and the rise of more active investors looking to hold companies increasingly accountable.
One effect of this is that responsible business leadership will become even more important. Responsible business is fundamentally about the creation of purpose that transcends short term financial gains, and sustainable business leadership is essentially aligning corporate values with purpose. Right now, there is a clear competitive opportunity for companies to embed themselves as Communities of Purpose to their customers, employees and wider society. Those who succeed, I suggest will be the leading businesses of tomorrow.
Simon Graham is Head of Innovation of De Courcy Alexander, the London-based sustainable innovation consultancy. Recipient of over 20 awards for his business change programmes built around zero carbon, zero waste and zero human trafficking, he has seen how companies can be transformed by focusing on their purpose. He is now involved in transformational programmes which combine cutting edge technologies, new business models and focus on community cohesion, working with public and private sector partners in areas like blockchain and IoT.
Simon also advises businesses and government bodies on how to simultaneously achieve net zero and improve customer satisfaction. Widely quoted, from The Economist to New Scientist, his latest contribution, published by Palgrave Macmillan, was titled “Sustainability, Management Education, and Professions: A Practitioner Perspective”, looking at how universities can nurture a new generation of sustainable leaders.