Founder of Responsible Governance, Alain Schnapper is a researcher and practitioner associated with the Business Theory chair at the Ecole des mines Paris PSL and vice-president of the Community of mission-driven companies. In 2020 he published the book Powerful and fragile, the company in democracy (Odile Jacob).
The modern company originally had a real societal mission. What was it exactly?
The modern company was born at the end of the XIXe century, driven by scientific and technical innovation. It was not only intended to be a place of value production, but also a human collective with new modes of organization: for example, the disappearance of payment by the task in favor of wage earners. Subsequently, it became fully part of the social and political project of social democracy. The State created all the conditions to allow the company to develop its activities: currency, legal certainty, education and training… In return, the company created innovations and wealth to finance the State- providence.
Today, this social contract seems broken. What happened ?
First, from the 1980s, the financialization of the economy led to excessive shareholder power. At the same time, the traditional relationship between the States which enact the rules and the companies which respect them has completely disintegrated under the effect of globalization. Finally, in a general context of weakening institutions, employees in democratic societies aspire to ever greater equality and freedom in the workplace. But their expectations are not easy to meet in organizations that are not democratic.
How can companies with a mission reconcile the company with society and its challenges?
Since the 1990s, confusion has arisen between the company of shareholders within the meaning of the Civil Code and the company itself, which includes shareholders, employees and their knowledge. However, since this collective does not have a legal existence, its interests are not defended in law, even though they do not necessarily correspond to the interests of the shareholders. The company with a mission places the collective interest at the heart of its activities.
How can we be sure that companies’ commitments go beyond mere communication?
Since the quality of a company with a mission is purely declarative, some companies can adopt a raison d’être just to look pretty. Employees know very well how to tell the difference between a marketing discourse and a truly committed approach. To be credible, the raison d’être must not only clearly set out the socio-environmental issues to which the company intends to respond, but also specify the means allocated to achieve them and the objectives to be achieved.
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