A Shift Has Happened From A Singular Bottom Line Focus, To A Triple Bottom Line Focus:
Once upon a time, completely in support of Milton Friedman’s famous conclusion that, “The Business of Business is Business”, the world of business and almost all individual enterprises within it, used to focus on a singular bottom line of: “Profit, Profit, Profit”.
In the past two hundred years, however – and especially in the past few decades – that single-minded focus solely on the pursuit of profit at any expense has evolved within many organizations into a more thoughtful and less selfish focus, where not only profit matters – people and the planet matter too.
As a result of this shift in focus, in one way or another, these more thoughtful individual businesses and their people are each working somehow, and to some degree, in support of the Triple Bottom Line Focus of: “Planet, People, Profit”.
The broad ideological framework that has emerged as a result of such a Triple Bottom Line Focus is usually referred to nowadays as Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR.
The World Business Council defines CSR as “the commitment of business to contribute to sustainable economic development working with employees, their families, the local community and society at large to improve their quality of life” (World Business Council 2005).
The Australia Standards Association, for example, in developing a standard for corporate social responsibility defines CSR as “a mechanism to voluntarily integrate social and environmental concerns into their operations and their interactions with their stakeholders, which are over and above the entities’ legal responsibilities.This encourages a culture of compliance for all entities. This standard is seen as assisting entities in achieving a culture of compliance”.
(For more information in PDF format on “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” of CSR – please click here.)
Before we go further, it is also important to note that CSR is absolutely not the same thing as Crisis Management, as this article on the Macleans website states:
“It’s important to point out that CSR isn’t about crisis management. The underlying argument for having an intensive CSR policy is to identify environmental, social and governance risks and prevent disasters from happening in the first place.”
CSR & A Triple Bottom Line Focus Isn’t Enough:
Any business, enterprise or other type of organization that meets its own Corporate Social Responsibility criteria and thereby consciously works in support of helping the planet and helping people in some way, whilst still making a profit for itself, is obviously doing a good thing – right?
Well, that often is the case. Many organizations around the world really are doing a very good job of doing good in the world whilst still making a financial profit. That said, ultimately how “good” or truly responsible such people and their business actually are depends on the scale and type of impact they have on “We The People & The Planet” in the short, medium and long term.
Looking deeper still, it is fairly self-evident that the scale and type of impact which any enterprise has on “We The People & The Planet” ultimately depends on what kind of work the organization actually does in its entirety in order to produce its profits. Consequently:
> Some Triple Bottom Line Focused enterprises have a very large negative impact on the planet and other people.
> Some Triple Bottom Line Focused enterprises have a very small negative impact on the planet and other people.
> Some Triple Bottom Line Focused enterprises have, in effect, a neutral impact on the planet and other people.
> Some Triple Bottom Line Focused enterprises have a very small positive impact on the planet and other people.
> Some Triple Bottom Line Focused enterprises have a very large positive impact on the planet and other people.
At first blush some of the entries in the above list may seem at odds with being a Triple Bottom Line Focused Enterprise.
That such an enterprise may have an overall neutral impact, or have a very small or even a very large positive impact intuitively makes sense, so it can seem logically impossible for an organization that has any type of Triple Bottom Line Focus and which fully complies with its own (completely voluntary) Corporate Social Responsibility programs to still have a very small, or even a very large negative impact on the planet and other people.
Yet that has actually proven to be the case far more often than you might imagine.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill (also referred to as the BP oil spill, the BP oil disaster, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the Macondo blowout) began on April 20, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect. Killing eleven people, it is considered the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry and estimated to be 8% to 31% larger in volume than the previous largest, the Ixtoc I oil spill. The US Government estimated the total discharge at 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal; 780,000 m3). After several failed efforts to contain the flow, the well was declared sealed on September 19, 2010. Reports in early 2012 indicated the well site was still leaking. (From Wikipedia)
Lessons From BP:
Way back in April 1996, one of Global Project Engineering’s core learning & development staff was working as a self-employed business consultant trading as, “Planetwise”. He was hired by Kent Greenes, then the Director of British Petroleum’s Virtual Teamworking Project (1995 – 1996) and appointed to work until the end of 1996 as the coach to the global leadership team of the VT project. His main role being to challenge Kent and to prompt “out of the box” thinking by Kent and the rest of the global leadership team.
A couple of months prior to being formally appointed as the leadership team’s coach, the business consultant had originally been called in at short notice because the entire global team of over 60 personnel had generally approached the whole VT Project in 1995 as if it were primarily a Technology project, rather than regarding it as being primarily a Teamworking (and therefore Human) project.
Consequently the consultant was initially employed to design and facilitate a three-day event in England for 60+ BP VT personnel, in order to help them re-focus the project’s direction somewhat, which he did simply by emphasizing the importance of Teamworking and Human aspects that had taken something of a backseat to the sexy computer and video Technology co-developed by Intel and BP during 1995.
That the human factor had been slightly sidelined was understandable. The new technology still being developed then allowed BP personnel in different locations around the world – including on oil rigs – to engage in desktop video conferencing and application sharing for the first time ever. Whilst we take such technology for granted these days, thanks to Skype, Zoom and the like, back then this was revolutionary. This was the stuff of Star Trek.
British Petroleum (BP) used to regard itself as being simply a “Hydrocarbon Company”, but by 1995 BP was proclaiming itself to be an “Energy Company” – a much more broadly focused beast.
Also at that time, helping organizations of all sizes to understand exactly what is entailed in operating as a genuinely Globally Responsible Business happened to be (and still is) our business-consultant’s main “thing”.
Consequently, as part of his “help us to think outside of the box” mandate, during his time on the VT Project, he suggested to Kent and his crew that British Petroleum as a whole should consciously evolve itself from being an “Energy Company” into becoming a “Synergy Company” and that BP should, furthermore, “go Beyond Petroleum and consciously engage in Being Planetwise”, which our consultant explained it could do only if the whole organization deliberately became and operated as a bona fide, Globally Responsible Business.
Unfortunately, such recommendations appeared to be “too much too soon” for BP and they simply weren’t acted upon – though it is interesting to note that by the year 2000 BP had adopted the corporate slogan – no doubt entirely coincidentally – of: “BP – Beyond Petroleum”.
By then too, whilst it had not actually chosen to transform itself into a genuinely Globally Responsible Business as had been suggested back in 1996, BP’s then CEO John Browne had fully embraced the idea that it should engage in Corporate Social Responsibility – as the new “Beyond Petroleum” slogan openly espoused.
However, merely creating and complying with its own CSR policies had obviously not been enough to prevent the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – an event that clearly had a very large negative impact on the planet and other people.
The consultant wonders to this day if instead of opting to merely go, “Beyond Petroleum” and choosing instead to actually engage in truly “Being Planetwise”, whether or not the fateful Deepwater Horizon oil rig catastrophe might have been avoided by BP.
Obviously we’ll never know for sure, but one thing which is certain is this:
Operating as a bona fide Globally Responsible Business is a hugely different and much better thing than engaging in Globally Irresponsible Busyness, whilst at the same time flying a flimsy green-washing flag of Corporate Social Responsibility.
The True Business Of Business:
Many organizations around the world still operate, consciously or otherwise, as if “The Only Business of Business is Business”. Going about their daily business-lives as if the only reason why any business should exist was simply that it should exist. Thus for centuries supporting this myopic mantra has meant – and in many cases still means – that: “This business exists only to enrich itself and its direct stakeholders”.
As the World Economic Forum stated in the article, “What Is The True Business Of Business?” in February 2016:
Friedman’s views on monetary economics dominated the last quarter of the 20th Century and it would not be an exaggeration to say that in most countries of the developed world they are still a critical driver of economic policy.
His views on the social responsibility of corporations, however, appear to have fared less well. Today over 90% of major businesses have specific programs dedicated to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Most CEOs talk about their organisation’s commitment to a wide range of philanthropic, employee engagement and other benevolent activities at almost every possible opportunity.
While this development is undoubtedly a positive one it is also true that as Friedman also noted “the business of business is business”. CSR is a good thing as far as it goes but the greater opportunity for the business community is to find ways to leverage their networks, their capital, their people and their technology to help create practical, sustainable, market based approaches that help benefit society in general and low income or underserved populations in particular.
Consequently, the most visionary business leaders nowadays hold the view that:
“The True Business of Business is Adding Value To Life”.
Supporting this more enlightened business-world-view essentially means that:
“This business exists to enrich all living beings – to the best of our ability.”
In effect, the more enlightened enterprise regards every natural living thing – up to and including God, if God indeed exists – as being a direct or indirect stakeholder in the business.
That’s huge. That’s almost unimaginably huge.
From A Triple Bottom Line Focus, To A Quadruple Bottom Line Focus – And Beyond:
Thus with all the above in mind, for any organization, small, medium-sized, large, multinational or even global in scope, to truly support that marvelous meme of, “The True Business of Business is Adding Value To Life”, a crucial thing to understand is that this admirable aspiration can only be achieved by truly operating as a Globally Responsible Business that complies with a Quadruple Bottom Line Focus of supporting and enabling:
Purpose, Planet, People & Prosperity
So what does that mean – and what does that entail?
Well, to begin with the term “Prosperity” is clearly a wider and more encompassing term than, “Profit”. In this context, we are essentially talking about consciously enabling all living beings to Prosper, which clearly has profound ecological considerations as well as economic considerations.
The terms Planet and People are fairly unambiguous terms and they mean exactly the same here as they do in the Triple Bottom Line Focus. We’re essentially talking about consciously enabling the Planet, with all of its natural inhabitants in general and Humanity specifically, to survive, thrive and enjoy being fully alive – which is a lot more than merely subsisting.
The potentially controversial term from the above four is, of course, “Purpose” – since this inevitably begs questions such as:
- Is there such a thing as Purpose in the first place?
- If there is such a thing as Purpose, what is the true Purpose of Humanity as a species?
- If there is such a thing as Purpose, what is the true Purpose of each individual Human Being?
- If there is such a thing as Purpose, what is the true Purpose of species other than Humanity?
- If there is such a thing as Purpose, what is the true Purpose of an individual member of any given species?
Personally, I submit that there most definitely is such a thing as Purpose and that not only is it possible to find out what the true Purpose of Humanity as a species actually is, I maintain that this is actually a relatively easy thing to do. Furthermore, I would go so far as to say that it is also possible and indeed relatively easy to find out what the true Purpose of every single member of every single species actually is.
Indeed I would go even further, and say that it is my understanding and conclusion, after decades of contemplation and research, that all natural living things, all individuals and all species alike, share a common (and perhaps universal) core Purpose, which is:
To Delight In Life, To Delight Life.
And that, fundamentally, is why:
The True Business of Business is Adding Value To Life.
And, I submit, it is also why that Core Purpose of Business may only be achieved and truly fulfilled if we each consciously invest in supporting a Quadruple Bottom Line Focus of deliberately supporting:
Purpose, Planet, People & Prosperity
Which is precisely what we do our best to serve and support, in everything we do, here at Global Project Engineering.
Author: Ray Murray
Consultant | Global Project Engineering Group