The Future of the Company – Impacts and Implications

Tailored solutions will be needed to respond to the unique characteristics of each region. For example, the continental European, Chinese, Japanese and Anglo-American economics and business models are each very different. Germany is characterized by a small number (less than 700) publicly listed companies with worker representation on company boards, whereas mandatory board-level employee representation would be a controversial proposition in the UK or the US. The EU will be forced to confront and reconcile these types of discrepancies in the corporate governance models of its Member States as it asserts an increasingly active role in company law, which has traditionally been under the purview of national governments.

Outside of the EU, we need to bring Asia, the Middle East and Africa into the discussion of sustainability, workers’ rights and human rights more generally. This will require thoughtful balancing of the local context with international standards. In the context of human rights, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights outline the responsibilities of States to enforce the principles of international human rights law and of companies to respect those principles. But more work is needed to translate the framework into context- and industry-specific guidelines. It is in the implementation of general principles and the reconciliation of potentially contradictory rights that compromises will be most needed.

If this process is successful, we may see a gradual reduction in inequality leading to less social unrest and less partisan politics. We may also see an increasingly prominent role for business in developing both soft and hard law in a transparent way, acting individually and in concert through more progressive collaborative initiatives than the current trade and industry associations that dominate policy circles in Brussels, Washington and London.

We need a new vision for the role of business in society. Part of the reason why the focus on maximizing shareholder value and short-term profits has captured business for so long is due to the failure to create consensus around an alternative conception of the purpose of the corporation. A model of corporate governance narrowly focused on maximizing shareholder value in the short-term is unbalanced and self-destructive. The paradigm that will rise to replace the current one will need to have a more holistic understanding of profit as one indicator of the long-term health of the organization, amongst others. The profit-making motive will sit comfortably alongside a consideration of a broader responsibility to the interests of society.

This new paradigm must be translated into the existing framework of incentives and regulations for corporate governance and accountability. It needs to be reflected in market mechanisms, in particular in the way that financial markets interact and influence companies. The role of shareholders in corporate governance will have to be rethought in order to protect their role in ensuring management accountability, whilst freeing companies from the imperative to maximise the stock price as at all costs.

In order to achieve transparency and accountability, companies will need to provide an accurate accounting of their environmental and social impacts, through required disclosure and through increased pressure for meaningful information from consumers. Boards of directors will also need to revise their decision-making process to consider the effect of the company on the environment and society. Companies should be expected, encouraged and even required to develop long-term plans charting their way towards environmental and economic sustainability. It will be necessary to devise holistic measures for measuring corporate success in the long-term, reflecting their ability to create value in a responsible manner. These metrics should be reflected in incentives for corporate executives as well as for institutional investors. We need to consider whether the current level of public investment in research and development is sufficient and properly allocated to achieve transformative change. Public-private partnerships, while not without flaws, are one path to support and stimulate green growth.

At some point, we will be forced to acknowledge that the current approach to governing companies is broken. Perhaps after the next financial crisis, but hopefully sooner. Certainly as we are forced to respond to climate change, which cannot be addressed by governments alone without the support and investment of business.