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.

News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
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

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Data Analyst/Planning and Performance – Surrey – Up to £35k

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

Markit EDM (CADIS) Developer

£50000 - £90000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Markit EDM (CA...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker