Bringing philosophical principles to business practices

In spite of a growing global economy, many people feel dissatisfied with the state of the world today. Indeed, social inequality, climate change and distrust in key institutions are contributing to the sentiment that capitalism, as a system, is failing people and the planet.

What’s the solution to this urgent problem? While some academics and policy leaders argue for greater regulation of powerful individuals and institutions, Subramanian Rangan offers an alternative view.

“Rather than regulate power, why not educate power?” says Rangan, the INSEAD Professor of Strategy and Management and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court Endowed Chair in Societal Progress. “The only way we know how to shape the preferences and shape the conduct of people in a durable and self-enforcing manner is through education. Education is part of our cultural system, and it can be scaled.” He offers this analogy: If regulation is like a GPS system—something that provides direction to a pre-set destination—then education is like a compass. “The compass is more useful than a GPS, because you can use it to reorient your destination,” he explains. “It allows you to see your direction of movement.”

Equipping leaders with this tool is the intent behind Rangan’s new programme, Integrating Performance and Progress(IPP), offered through INSEAD Executive Education. Drawing from the principles of philosophy, the programme focuses on how business leaders can systematically integrate economic performance and societal progress into their firms. It disputes the conventional wisdom that progress is for governments and performance is for firms, affirming that leaders need to work toward both goals simultaneously.

The programme helps participants to “start rethinking their ends,” Rangan says. “What is your aspiration? Is your ladder against the right wall? We want to help leaders choose the right ends and be sensitised to calibrate those in light of the broader issues—so that they are agents of progress, not slaves of success.”

A multidimensional view of progress
Progress, Rangan explains, is a dynamic concept that continues to evolve across geographies and over time. In simplest terms, it is the closing of the gap between how the world is and how the world ought to be. Today, this can apply to issues such as gender parity, racial discrimination and environmental risks.

“Progress refers to closing the gap durably and intentionally,” Rangan says. “It has a human, social, wilful aspect to it.”

In the IPP programme, progress is examined across three dimensions:

  1. Fairness —applies to both distributed fairness (e.g., getting equal pay for equal work) and procedural fairness (e.g., offering disclosure agreements).
  2. Wellbeing —asserts that life is multidimensional and not just about money, jobs or security; it is also about health, social connections, education and how time is spent.
  3. Expanded humanity — emphasises the importance of “non-relationist” caring, which is the ability to care for people that you don’t know or have relationships with (e.g., future generations).

These conceptions of progress inform conversations about how leaders should approach business dilemmas that are inherently socio-philosophical, rather than techno-economic, in nature. Consider, for instance, the dilemma as to whether driverless cars should be programmed to always protect passengers or always protect pedestrians. Or the dilemma as to whether companies should use facial recognition technology, even if it means depriving people of certain fundamental rights.

Leaders can’t make decisions about these dilemmas; they have to make choices, Rangan says. “Decisions are made and optimised based on the past,” he explains. “Choices are not about the payoff. Choices are influenced by identity, and our choices define our identity.”

These dilemmas also raise philosophical questions that require reasoning and reflection, unlike economic questions that can be answered by performing calculations.

“How do you choose between two things that you care about, such as security and liberty?” asks Rangan. “How do we integrate these seeming contradictions—outputs and outcomes, performance and progress, modernity and morality, privacy and productivity, efficiency and equity, and so on and so forth? It is by reasoning, and it’s by having some compass and pointing towards north.”

Integrating business and philosophy
To that point, the IPP programme prepares executives to develop a new way of reasoning that’s grounded in philosophy. “It’s not an invitation to an answer—or a particular technique—as much as it is to a body of knowledge in philosophy,” explains Rangan. “Leaders can draw on philosophy as selectively and as narrowly and as applied as they want to. They don’t need to become philosophers to practice reasoning, to practice wisdom, to practice choice, and to develop a satisfactory way of moral interdependence.”

Rangan also hopes that the programme will help participants gain the “determination to struggle with the goal of integration—because integration is hard,” he says. “Every entrepreneur who goes through the IPP programme says that performance was the only goal they had before they came. But once they leave the programme, they understand that there is a second goal they ought to embrace: progress.”

This story was first published on The Campaign for INSEAD: A Force for Good website.

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