Finding Meaning in Management

By on July 1, 2013

Working with executives in two contrasting types of organizations – business enterprises and social enterprises – Troy Dyer says that he has observed the increasing convergence of these two worlds over the last decade. 

The trend is linked to the relationship between two concepts – meaning and management – and their respective role in the two types of organization.  Each type has been finding meaning in management, albeit in different ways.

Business enterprises are traditionally management oriented.  They seek to apply management concepts and frameworks to improve their performance.   For example, in the area of performance management, a business’ objectives may be organized into different interdependent areas, such as the financial, marketing, operational and people related performance areas.

Objectives in each performance area may beexpressed in terms of baselines, targets and timeframes for thekey performance indicators.  Using this approach, organizational resources would then be allocated to different performance areas based on the gaps between baselines and targets, and the prioritization of the different performance areas.

The system of performance management includes monitoring progress in each performance area and taking appropriate corrective action. Strong performance is usually reflected in the business’ financial results and the growth of the enterprise’s value, a key measure from a shareholder’s perspective.

Described in this manner, the concept of management may appearsimple and easy to apply.  This may be true in a large, established organization operating in a stable business environment.  However, such a combination is an increasingly rare phenomenon.  The rate of change in the business environment requires businesses to continually adapt, innovate and reinvent themselves, in order to survive and grow. The management of people in a business enterprise hasbecome more complex.

How does one continually motivate, equip and guide people to maintain and improve business performance under conditions of increasing change and uncertainty?  It is a challenge to sustain a coherent sense of meaning and purpose.  It is not surprisingthatmanagementpractitioners have been drawingupon concepts from seemingly disparate sources, each offering different approaches to findinga sense of meaning in management.

One example is the increasing importance attached to cultivating entrepreneurial thinkingand behaviorin large, established organizations. Referred to as corporate entrepreneurship, this approach encourages a style of management characterized by a greater degree of innovation, risk-taking and proactiveness, traits associated with an entrepreneurial mindset.The concept of entrepreneurship, once associated more with small businesses and new ventures, has been embraced by large established businesses.The result tends to be more motivated employees and higher rates of business growth.

Another shift in the management of business enterprises, both large and small, has been the deeper search for meaning in terms of the role of business in the broader society. Concepts such as the triple bottom line have entered the domain of performance management, resulting in a wider business performance framework that comprises profit, people and the planet. The management of people in these businesses has shifted from a set of performance indicators that is primarily financially oriented, to one that encourages individuals to think and behave in a socially responsible and ethically sound manner.

In some businesses thismove towardssocially oriented performance measures has been regarded as a regulatory impositionrather than a shift towards a more meaningful modeling of the role of business in society. In other businesses there has been an earnest search for ways to align the decisions and actions of management and staff with the objectives of a broader range of stakeholders, and with a higher sense of purpose and meaning.

The notorious culture of corporate greed and ethically questionable behavior of a decade ago seems to be transitioning towards a renewed focus on serving the needs of the customer and the community, within a business performance framework.  In the process of rethinking their role in society and realigning their performance frameworks, business enterprises have been finding new meaning in the theory and practice of management.

How does this compare with the trend in social enterprises, entities that are non-profit in orientation?  If business enterprises are primarily management oriented then social enterprises may be considered as primarily meaning and mission oriented. The sense of meaning and the personal motivation of social entrepreneurs derive from their foundational mission to serve chosen beneficiaries and to achieve various social impact objectives, rather than financial performance objectives.

Social impact objectives and financial performance objectives are not mutually exclusive. Although the former is of primary concern to the social entrepreneur, the latter has become an important consideration for the sustainability of the organization. Social entrepreneurs may start out thinking that social enterprises are very different from business enterprises, and that management tools are not applicable to them.  However, over time many agree that the use of business management frameworks leads to new ways to think about organizational performance.

Social entrepreneurs are thus increasingly looking to their business enterprise counterparts and finding new meaning in the concept of management. The benefit is a higher quality of analysis and a more informed discussion on performance, both internally with colleagues and externally with a range of stakeholders, such as donors and funders.  Once social entrepreneurs see the value in applying various management tools, especially the link between improved organizational management and the improved performance in social impact, they are more likely to find meaning in management.

Both groups, business enterprises and social enterprises, can therefore learn a lot from each other, once they rethink the meaning in management.

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