Inside business: Praise be to the non-believers

Roger Trapp studies a book celebrating the `heretics' who have challenged corporate culture

Listening to all the current talk about stakeholders and various other manifestations of the belief that businesses exist for something other than to maximise the earnings of shareholders, it is easy to run away with the idea that this is a recent enthusiasm. In truth, though, companies have been forced to respond to such pressures in varying degrees pretty much since the end of the Second World War.

Accordingly, the sort of things now being considered by consumer groups, business academics and even some more enlightened corporate executives are not the result of sudden piercing insights. They are just elements in a trend that has been developing for decades.

In fact, Art Kleiner's fascinating study of this phenomenon, The Age of Heretics, goes further - to say that modern business has been buffeted by the same powerful social forces that have rocked the rest of us.

Mr Kleiner, a former editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, a counter-culture bible, describes how many organisations, while subject to angry protests from outside, were challenged by radicals within. Some of these people were ignored - even fired or demoted - but others were able in small ways to change how corporations behaved.

Among the examples he cites are the early experiments in teamworking at factories operated by Procter & Gamble, the American consumer goods group. The P&G factory at Lima, Ohio was designed with the company's blessing. But the man put in charge of it was an organisational development specialist who had tapped into Sixties thinking by looking closely at the thinking of G I Gurdjieff, a spiritual leader, who would also influence the scenario planners at Shell, whose work is also described in the book.

According to Mr Kleiner, some of Charles Krone's associates "liked the way his conversation mixed nuts-and-bolts shopfloor data with cosmological theories about the purpose of human life".

The counter-culture link is much more obvious, though, in the descriptions of how companies like Kodak were forced by outside pressure to change. In the 1960s the photographic company in Rochester, New York, appeared to be the picture of benevolence, albeit with a prim culture that required executives who kept secretaries after 5pm to call in chaperones and did not permit expense account drinking. But its weak link was its hiring policy.

With black unemployment rising in northern cities, Kodak was made the subject of protests led by Saul Alinsky, a renowned community organiser. Though the campaign was assisted by the efforts of a sympathetic "heretic" executive with the company, Kodak agreed to a "settlement" after the use of a tactic that is commonplace now but was then unheard of - protesting at the company's annual meeting.

General Motors was targeted by Ralph Nader, a crusading consumer lawyer, in a book called Unsafe at Any Speed, in which he claimed that the company had sacrificed safety for looks in its Corvair model. From there, he went on to attack corporate practice in all areas - and to be at least partly responsible for the growth of the consumer movement and of interest in business ethics.

Mr Kleiner, who has collaborated with Peter Senge, a "learning organisation" guru, and others at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to produce The Fifth Discipline Handbook, is optimistic enough to conclude that "sooner or later", business managers will have to realise that they can only profit by participating. When they do not own the means of production they will have to rely on other forms of loyalty.

And, far from outliving their usefulness, heretics have grown in number. Some work in large organisations, others run them. "Their greatest aspiration is to bring their work lives in tune with their personal hopes and dreams," he writes.

But he is also honest enough to point out - in gentle asides, like the reference to the research showing how every company in a study of businesses moving out of New York had relocated to within eight miles of the chief executive's home - how senior managers have often put their interests ahead of those of the organisation as a whole.

`The Age of Heretics' is published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing at pounds 20.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution