The Zen philosophy has reached the business world. More and more organisations are adopting a new business paradigm where money is the means and social impact is the end. This new corporate vision, which has been coined “Zen business”, resolves and transcends the apparent contradiction between economic and social businesses. As various studies have shown, companies with a big social and environmental impact that guarantee their workers’ personal and professional development are able to build unique, profitable brands that are leaders in their sector. These so-called “Zen organisations” are characterised by business models that go beyond maximising economic profit.
Zen business: humanising the economy
Dr Josep Maria Coll, associate professor of EADA and director the EADA EU-Asia Global Business Research Centre, recently published his book Zen Business. His thesis looks at the multiple benefits of applying this harmony in the company. In Dr Coll’s opinion, it is fundamental to give people the chance to express their creativity, develop their talent and work in harmony. “We spend the largest part of our day working,” he points out, “but we seem to take for granted that what the company demands of us and values is our economic efficiency and our capacity to win and compete, so we seek out self-fulfilment outside the company.”
Dr Coll sees this focus as mistake because an organisation should guarantee the self-fulfilment of its employees. “Today the challenge we are faced with is to promote a corporate development centred on people and, in this way, humanise the economy,” he urges. “It is the only way we have to address global challenges and improve our happiness at work; it is the reconnection of being and having.”
The Zen business model
In order to accomplish this reconnection, Dr Coll puts forward a Zen business model that entails reaching a balance between the five key processes for creating business value: human leadership, stakeholders, marketing and innovation, finances and brand and corporate culture. He calls these “the five corporate Zen stars”, which correspond to five interrelated, complementary and interdependent processes, inspired by the age-old Zen theory of “the five elements”.
The first process, human leadership, refers to the need to integrate universal values into the company’s business model. “It has to do with defining a superior purpose, a mission and values that will enable the company to make a positive imprint on society,” he says. Dr Coll offers three illustrative models: Steve Jobs (Apple), a great lover of design who set out to change the world through technology; John Mackey (Whole Foods), a lover of healthy food whose goal consisted of looking after the planet through organic farming; Cristóbal Colón (La Fageda), who has set up a company committed to offering employment opportunities to the mentally disabled.
The model’s second cornerstone is the stakeholders, in other words, “people who contribute and develop their talent to design highly creative products, thus maximising customer value”. The example that Dr Coll chooses here is Starbucks, which built brand value by looking after its employees. “Starbucks was the first organisation in the sector to develop trust among its employees” he points out, “making them partners in the company, motivating them to take part in decision making, offering them access to quality training programmes and paying them a higher-than-average salary. As a result, the workers became the brand’s true ambassadors and at the same time guaranteed quality and service for its products.”
Point three –“disruptive, frugal and sustainable” marketing and innovation strategies– and point four –financial management oriented towards sustainability and holistic impact– are very closely related. “An industrial engineer committed to energy efficiency will have a more meaningful career if he/she works at an electric car company than in a company that designs engines that break down after 130,000 km in order to increase product turnover and make the company more profitable,” Dr Coll explains. “This engineer will obviously be more motivated, creative and productive and will ultimately contribute much more to making the electric care company profitable.”
The last pillar of the business model is the corporate brand and culture. “This point is the result of the four previous points,” Dr Coll emphasises, “the implementation of which will ultimately determine a brand and leading flagship corporate culture in the marketplace and in society.”
The shinise spirit
Japan’s “shinise companies” are Zen organisations par excellence. These are companies that conceive and measure their success in terms of their longevity rather than the economic profits they have made or their annual growth rate. In fact, shinise in Japanese means “a longstanding company backed by generations of history”. This is one of the main traits of Japanese companies, the oldest in the world. There are 20,000 companies in Japan that are over 100 years old, 1,200 over 200 years old, 600 over 300 years old, 30 over 500 years old and 5 over 1,000 years old.
According to Dr Coll, the management of these organisations is based on Zen business principles. “All of these companies have overcome difficulties and adverse events such as wars, meteorological disasters and economic and political crises and they have always remained loyal to their social commitment,” he says. “Companies such as Shoyeido and Nintendo are good examples of the shinise spirit, because they have always known that success is not to be found in the profit and loss account as such, but rather in the commitment to people, their environment and continuous improvement seeking excellence.”
Article written by EADA professor Dr Josep Maria Coll.