The age of Corporate Enlightenment


The Age of Enlightenment is often seen as a historical anomaly, a brief moment in time when numerous intellectuals believed in a society based on common sense and tolerance. The Enlightenment was not really a holistic philosophy, it was more a set of values shared by thinkers all around the world: At the core, Enlightenment was about freedom, democracy and reason.  The Enlightenment brought a rise of the public sphere in Europe. This includes academies, the book industry, journals, coffeehouses, debating societies , salons and freemasonic lodges. See any parallels to our current information revolution and new forms of public spheres we’re experiencing each and every day?

While the human experience has been radically changed by the Enlightenment , businesses overall have been stuck in the Middle Ages. Or, at least, in a system where Wall Street resembles Versailles and figures like Merrill Lynch’s CEO John Thain (redecorating his office for over $1 million during the height of the Great Recession) make Marie Antoinette look like a street worker. It’s very apparent that big businesses have reverted to principles of oligarchy, aristocracy, the divine right of kings and theocracy. Yes, I said it: theocracy. In the corporate world the deity is interchangeable – Shareholder Value one day, data the other. Nothing against a good belief system but it has no place in the boardroom. And these varying belief systems are mostly to blame for the current Great Recession: CEO’s that sacrificed the long-term future of a company for short-term benefits and quick bonuses. Outrageous executive compensation packages combined with a middle class squeeze. Mindless belief in data and algorithm that almost brought Wall Street down and ended life as we know it.

The advent of social technologies has unleashed a consumer force never seen and experienced before. People expect things to happen immediately, any delays or excuses are not acceptable anymore. We used to believe yesterday’s news were boring, now we find today’s news boring and expect real-time experiences. This applies not only to news outlets; this applies to all businesses. If you’re not real-time very quickly, you’ll vanish. Focusing on real-time makes strategists and product developer cringe: What will happen to all these neat and thick road maps, the inspiring goals and objectives? What will happen to day-long workshops hashing out the strategy of the future? They’ll disappear. And will be replaced with discussions and collaborations how to deal with the ‘here and now’.

That’s where the concept of a business based on social marketing principles comes in.

At their core, real-time businesses have to be social. Only if you burn down the silos, open the communication flow to all participants in the value chain (not only consumers – vendors, suppliers, employees, etc.) will you be successful in the evolving real-time world. Good companies will use consumer feedback to improve their products and services. (And some are already living this model.) Great companies will anticipate consumer needs before they are even aware of their own desire. The goal will be to be redesign your car while you’re driving it. (Talking about Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals!)

It requires more from businesses than just writing a check to consultants and agencies. It requires for them to become enlightened. To understand that the clowns on CNBC are screaming louder and louder because they are beginning to grasp that things will never be as good as they were for them.

And so much better for the rest of us.

Businesses and institutions were developed to reign in chaos, silo people and make the world manageable to them. In the future, life will be more chaotic and each of us has to find ways to manage this new-found freedom. The last enlightenment lasted around 100 years. One reason why it ended was the top-down construct of  this philosophy, lead by a few. The new age of corporate enlightenment has chances to last much longer because it will be designed from the bottom-up.  And change life, work, organizations – basically everything – for the better.


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