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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Guru Careers: Management Accountant

£27 - 35k + Bonus + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Management Accountant is needed ...

Guru Careers: Project Manager / Business Analyst

£40-50k + Benefits.: Guru Careers: A Project Manager / Business Analyst is nee...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'