Philosophy and Business

I haven’t blogged for a while. It has been a busy summer and a number of ideas have been bubbling to the surface that needed some thought before I committed them to a public record. A recent article in the Economist’s Schumpeter column has prompted me back to the keyboard. The piece in question is Philosopher Kings. The author argues that many business leaders would benefit from “inward-bound” short courses where participants explore ideas in great literature and the uses of philosophical concepts. Going beyond the moment-by-moment experiences that mindfulness practices cultivate (although I question this characterisation of mindfulness), an “inward-bound” session would enrich the thinking and inner life of business leaders, providing inspiration for thought and decision-making with refreshed frameworks drawn from the works of philosophers and thinkers whose ideas have had significant impact on how we understand ourselves, each other and the world, and how we act in that world. It is interesting how many business leaders have had some background in philosophy. Another discussion on a related theme was published in the Atlantic magazine a few years ago: The Management Myth.

What these articles highlight is that managers have the opportunity to develop and apply worldviews and values to specific contexts, like Plato’s philosopher kings: as others have pointed out, large organisations are very rarely run as democracies and share much with the internal structure of communist nations (as does Plato’s ideal state, in some respects). The application of philosophy to business is still in its infancy, despite the fact that one of the founding gurus of modern management, Peter Drucker (1909-95), was both well-read in, and influenced by, philosophy and philosophical economics. In the business world, finding new ways of thinking through big problems, and developing unique perspectives on the value and purpose of an organisation can lead to new advantages internally and externally. Having a philosophical vision of the sort of society one aims at enhancing and the kind of organisation one hopes to foster and lead, gives a guide to colleagues and employees that is more fulfilling and personally expandable, than any simple “statement of values” (meaning “acceptable behaviours”) can ever provide. It seems, then, that future uses of philosophy should not be limited to outlining epistemological theories about how information passes through organisations, but could address wider issues of purpose and value, meaning and rationality, individuals and society. This is something I have believed for some time, and it is refreshing that this theme in business thinking is finding contemporary expression.