Shaping Values In Business A Dharmic Vision–M.S. Srinivasan

[Published in Gitam Journal of Management Vol.7 No. 4 Oct-Dec 2009)

Abstract

The task of choosing and shaping values is a crucial phase in institution-building. This formative phase in organizational development has to be taken with great care because it determines the inner character and culture of an organization.  This article, examines this crucial and important phase of institution-building in the light of the Indian concept of Dharma.  However, as the discussion which follows will show, the approach outlined in this article is not culture-specific but has a universal validity.  The path articulated in this article can be applied to the process of Institution-building in any field of human endeavour, but it is presented here with a special focus on the development of a modern business organization.

Key Perspectives: Web of Dharma; Inner Core of an Organisation; Dharmic Approach; Social Responsibility of Business; Values of Corporate Dharma

Web of Dharma

The task of choosing and shaping values is an important function of top leadership.  But it should not be done according to the personal fancies and ideals of the leader.  We need a impersonal standard or framework which can help or guide the decision-making process.  Here comes the utility of the Indian concept of Dharma.  The concept of Dharma can be interpreted at many angles and at different levels.  The term Dharma refers to the laws that hold together all creation.  In terms of values, Dharma means all the ideals or standards which lead to the material, mental, moral and spiritual well-being of the individual and the collectivity.  So in this Indian conception values have to be chosen based on a clear understanding and assessment of its dharmic potential.

There are two facets of Dharma which are relevant to the present theme of our discussion.  First is the universal and eternal Dharma, Sanathana Dharma, and the other is the unique and specific dharma of the individual and collective self, Swadharma.  The universal Dharma are those ideals or principles derived from the laws of the highest spiritual nature of Man and the World and related to the highest aims of human development like for example truth, beauty, goodness, mutuality, interdependence, harmony, freedom, equality, fraternity, perfection, unity, wholeness, oneness of all existence, and finally the source of all these values, the Divine.

We may include here all the implications of these universal ideals in term of behavior, conduct and values.  For example the ideal of truth has to express itself in terms of honesty, transparency, integrity and truthfulness in thought, feelings and actions; beauty and harmony in terms of cleanliness, aesthetic sensibility, inner and outer harmony in the organization of life; goodness in terms of generosity, kindness, compassion, self-giving and charity; unity, interdependence and wholeness of life in terms of selflessness, mutuality, trust and service or contribution to the progress and well being of the larger whole, ecological sustainability; perfection and fulfillment through a harmonious and integral development of the physical, psychological and spiritual potentialities of the human being and their harmonious and integral self-expression in the outer life; liberty, equality and fraternity in terms of empowerment, distributive justices, mutual trust, goodwill and understanding, teamwork, communal harmony; and finally oneness of all existence through universal and impersonal love for all creation.  This is the universal spiritual message of all religions and advanced cultures of the world.  Many of these values are self-evident to the intuition of our higher nature.  Among modern management thinkers Stephen Cowey emphasized strongly on these universal principles. ‘Personally I believe’ states this well-known leadership guru ‘that the source of the principles that give your life its integrity and its power and its meaning, all of them link upto the Divine.  To be a spiritual based leader is to have these universal principles integrated in your inner life and outer action’. (Cowey.S) Elaborating further on the nature of these universal principles, Cowey says: ‘The principles I am referring to are the basic universal principles that pertain to all human relationship and organizations, for instance, fairness, justice, honesty, integrity and trust.  They are self-evident, self-validating.  These principles are like natural laws and operate regardless whether we decide to obey them or not —– and they provide rock-solid direction to our lives and our organizations.’(Cowey.S, 2001)

The other aspect of Dharma is the Swadharma which means the unique and intrinsic inner nature of the individual or the community and the corresponding values or outer function or activity which arises from this inner nature.  The ancient Indian thought held the view that the outer occupations of individuals have to be in harmony with their unique swadharma.  The Indian thought classified individuals into four major types according to their swadharma.  The first one is the Mentor-type of personality who lives predominantly in his thinking, ethical, aesthetic, ideal or intuitive mind; second is the Marshal-type who lives mainly in his will and vital force; third is the Merchant-type who lives in his emotional and pragmatic mind; fourth is the worker-type lives in the physical mind.  The Indian thought held the view that for a smooth inner development of an individual, his/her outer occupation has to be in harmony with his/her inner nature, swadharma.  When these four types of human beings express themselves in the outer life, it creates corresponding types of groups, institutions and organs in the human society.  So not only each human individual and type, but every group, like a community, organization or a nation and every social organ or activity like economics, politics, business, labour-force has its own swadharma determined by its dominant inner nature.

We have to aim at the highest values and ideals of universal Dharma.  But most of us in our present condition, individually or collectively, may not have the inner resources to realize the highest spiritual potentialities of universal dharma.  We have to grow towards them through a process of progressive evolution spanning intermediary stages of development, bridging the gap through intermediary ideals.  So in choosing, imparting or communicating the guiding values for an individual or a collectivity we have to give careful consideration to two important factors.  Every member of the organization has to be awakened to the highest ideals of universal Dharma.  But for practical motivation, each individual and the collectivity has to be taken as they are in their present condition of evolution, and provided with appropriate ideals which will help them to progress towards the next higher stage in evolution.  The other factor is the swadharma.  The guiding values for the individual and the collectivity have to be closely related to their intrinsic inner nature, swadharma.  The ideals and values for a business, political and spiritual organization can not be exactly the same because inner nature of these organizations are not similar.  We have to grow towards the universal Dharma by following a path which is in harmony with our inborn nature.

Let us now examine the task of shaping values in a modern business organization in the light of this dharmic perception and in the context of modern management thought on the subject

The Inner Core of an Organisation

An organization has an inner core and outer life.  The outer life of the organization is the expression of its inner core and therefore the quality of the external life of the community depends on the nature of its inner core.  For enduring success and well-being, every organization has to build a dharmic inner core or Soul.  Interestingly, the mind of modern business, through a process of natural evolution, experience and reflection, has arrived at some important insights on the inner core of a business organization.  It is now recognized that for long-term effectiveness of an organization, it should have some “superordinate” goals which transcends its mundane aims of the bottom-line.  Thomas Watson Jr, one of the makers of IBM, wrote in a memorable passage in his book Business and its Beliefs :

‘I firmly believe that any organization, in order to survive and achieve success, must have a sound set of be­liefs on which it premises all its policies and actions.  Next, I believe that the most important single factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs.  And, finally, I believe if an organization is to meet the challenge of a changing world, it must be prepared to change everything about itself except those beliefs as it moves through corporate life.  In other words, the basic philosophy, spirit and drive of an organization have far more to do with its relative achievements than do technological or economic resources. organizational structure, innovation, and timing.  All these things weigh heavily in success.  But they are, I think, transcended by how strongly the people in the organization believe in its basic precepts and how faithfully they carry them out.’(Peters T, waterman R)

This ‘spirit, philosophy and beliefs’ of an organization articulated clearly in what is now called in current management thought as ‘Mission, Vision, Values’, is the dharmic core of an organization.  While the mission statement defines the broad direction in which the organization has to progress, the vision statement articulates some intermediate goals of the future which the organization wants to achieve within a given time. For a business organization both the mission and vision have to be in harmony with the swadharma of business, which is to create wealth, not merely for shareholders, but for the society as a whole and for other stakeholders like employees and customers.  So the mission and vision of a business organization must be related to the aims, values and process of creation and distribution of wealth like customer service, quality, technological excellence or innovation, creative utilization of resources, social responsibility, and HRD goals like employee development, motivation, satisfaction or well being.

Let us now look at the mission and vision statement of some of the leading corporate players IBM Global Services describe their mission as ‘At IBM Global Business Services, our mission is to engage collaboratively with our clients and tackle their most complex business problem, we will apply our business insights to develop fresh, innovative solutions that provide real and measurable business outcomes.’  Here the main emphasis is on Customer Service.  Microsoft defines its mission as ‘to help people and business throughout the world realize their full potential’.  Here the emphasis is on developing the human potential.  Google says its mission is to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’ Here the stress is on efficient utilization and distribution of an important resource for wealth-creation.  Service Master deftly combines spiritual, human and mundane goals into their mission which is ‘to honour God in all we do’, ‘To help people to develop,’ ‘To pursue excellence’ and ‘To grow profitably.’  The Vision must flow out of the Mission. For formulating the vision, Subroto Bagchi, one of the founders of a highly successful software consultancy firm, in India, Mindtree, gives the following useful guidelines:

  • A financial goal: reaching a certain level of business, profitability and return on investment in a specified time-frame.
  • An admiration goal: being among the best employees in a given category or to win an industry-level award or recognition.
  • A goal towards social sensitivity something that organization would stand for.

The Mission of the Mind-tree is to “deliver business-enabling solutions and technologies, in partnership with customers, in a joyous environment of our people”.  The vision, which follows from this mission for the year 2007-08, is:

  1. To achieve $ 231 million in revenue
  2. To be among the top 10 percent in our business in terms profit after tax and return on investment (ROI).
  3. To be on the top 20 globally admired companies in our industry.
  4. To give a significant portion of our PAT to support primary education.

The third aspect of the inner core is the values.  In navigating an organization towards its goals, if mission and vision are like the pole start values are like a compass.  There must be certain alignment between mission, vision and values.  The vision must flow out of mission and values must follow mission and vision.  And the values must provide clear guidelines for shaping decision, action, behaviour and decision.  The Mind-tree classifies its value-systems into four categories: Caring, Learning, Action, Sharing and Sociality Responsible, CLASS.  And in each category provides detailed description of what it means.  For example the values of caring is further classified into customer caring, people caring, financial caring, stakeholder caring and organizational caring.  And each of these subdivisions are further explained to felicitate better understanding.  For instance customer caring is defined as ‘understanding customer needs, stretches to deliver customer satisfaction.  Builds lasting bonds and trust with customers.’(Bagchi.S, 2006)

The main message, which emerges from these examples is that the mission, vision and values of a business organization should not stray away into some abstract, moral and spiritual aims unrelated to the swadharma of business.  It should stay close to the aim of improving the quality of the economic and social life of the community.  This doesn’t mean the organization should not make any attempt to realize a higher vision belonging to the moral and spiritual realms.  But whatever higher vision it wants to realize have to be related to and expressed in terms of the swadharma of a modern business organization.  For example if the organization aspires for truth, beauty and goodness, it must ask what do these values mean for modern corporate activities like finance, manufacturing, marketing, customer service, human resource development, corporate governance, interpersonal relationship and express them in terms of these corporate realities.

The Dharmic Approach

The Mission and Vision have to be aspirational and audacious, not limited by the potentialities of the past or present.  But for achieving a better quality of life the Vision must aim at qualitative greatness rather than quantitative expansion.  For example, the vision of Alexandar and Genghiskhan was to conquer and rule over the world through military power.  It is a great and heroic vision but it may not lead to any qualitative improvement in the life of the people who are ruled over.  On the other hand, the great emperors of ancient India like Samudragupta, Chandragupta and Asoka, had no such world-conquering ambitions.  Their political aspirations were rather modest compared to that of Alexandar or Genghiskhan.  But they had a great moral vision for building a civilization on the foundations of the noble values of Dharma.  The vision of the empire-builder of India was based on the ancient Indian social and political thought which aimed at creating a framework of outer life that will lead to material, social and moral well-being of the community and a progressive psychological and spiritual evolution of the individual towards her spiritual destiny.  And in ancient India this dharmic vision did not remain as an abstract theory in the upper layers of the communal mind.  The builders of Indian civilization made a great attempt to communicate it to the masses through concrete images, symbols, stories and myths and integrate it into the daily life of people through a network of social, religious and spiritual values, institutions and practices.  And the positive result of this effort was well documented in the accounts of Chinese pilgrims who traveled India during the golden ages of its history.  As a team of American historians writing about the life of people under the reign of the Gupta emperor Vikramaditya, state:

‘Fa-Hsien, who had no reason to bestow unmerited praise, described the government as just and beneficent.  The roads, he indicated, were well maintained, brigandage was rare, taxes were relatively light, and capital punishment was unknown.  He testified to a generally high level of prosperity, social contentment and intellectual vitality at a time when the nations of Western Europe were sinking into semi-barbarism.’(Burns EM and others, 1991)

The modern corporate world can learn a few lessons from this ancient Indian wisdom in framing their mission and vision.  For example a company, which aspires to become the most admired, or the best employer with a predominant emphasis on employee well being has a qualitatively superior vision than the one, which aspire to be number one or two in terms of size, market share or market-capitalization, with a dominant stress on financial goals.  And these two visions, the first one predominantly dharmic and the other exclusively economic, will have their corresponding results in the quality of the corporate life.

Similarly with values.  To create a higher quality if life the system of values must contain elements of universal dharma.  The Mission, Vision and Values constitute the aim and the path of the organization.  And as the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram points out ‘—–on the quality of your aim will depend the quality of your life’ and ‘your aim should be high and wide, generous and disinterested; this will make your life precious to yourself and to others’ or in other words, dharmic.  For, an aspiration oriented towards the universal values of Dharma expressed in selfless, disinterested and generous action or service for the wellbeing and progress of the larger whole is the essence of dharmic behaviour.

Social Responsibility of Business

This brings us to the view of some of the orthodox schools of business (like for example that of Milton Friedman) with the dictum “business of business is business” which means the only aim of business is to create wealth for the shareholders and business should not get into any other social activities.  This school of thought doesn’t believe in the concept of social responsibility, which is emerging strongly in the new management thinking.  Though this orthodox school of business is now vigorously contested by an increasing number of progressive thinkers in management belonging to the social responsibility school, there are still many people in business who hold on to this rather sterile view of business as a profit and wealth-creating machine.  The dharmic view is very much in favour of the emerging trends of thought on Corporate Social Responsibility, which is based on the perception of Business as an integral part of human society and the resulting recognition that business must contribute to the well being and progress of the society for its own long-term effectiveness.  Another important perspective emerging in the mind of business is that social responsibility is not merely throwing money in the form of charity.  Philanthropy must transform itself into an art and science of creative giving and has to be done with the same level of professional competence which is bestowed on pursuing bottom line business goals like profit or productivity.  For example Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, writing on his philosophy of charity says

‘Carnegie believed the wealthy are custodians of society’s resources and have a moral obligation to spend altruistically and wisely——I am a steward of some of society’s resources and I take the responsibility seriously—-I believe in bringing the discipline of business to the art of giving.  In practical terms it means doing as much as possible with every dollar and partnering with groups doing excellent work.’ (Gates. B, 1999)

The dharmic view admits the fact that a business organization is a part of the economic life of the community and therefore wealth-creation and improving the economic life of the community is an indispensable and irrevocable dharma of business.  But business also draws its material resources from Nature and generates a lot of waste.  So it has a paramount ecological responsibility, which is part of improving the material and economic life of the community.  Business is not only on economic entity but also a social organism, or a community, which is part of the surrounding social environment, and from which it draws its social resource like human capital, infrastructure and education.  So business has a social responsibility for sustaining and improving the quality of the social environment.  Moreover the quality of the economic, social, cultural, psychological and spiritual environment are closely inter-related and interdependent.  Quality of the economic life depends on the quality of the social factors like education, health care, family support system, social security, communal harmony, equity and gender relations.  Similarly quality of the social environment depends on cultural values and ideals.  And finally, the quality of the psychological and spiritual environment of the community depends on the dharmic content of its values, not merely professed in thought and word, but lived in action.

But the ideal of social responsibility may appear to be contradictory to the concept of swadharma, which demands that a business organization should stick to its swadharma and should not get directly involved in activities outside the boundaries of its dharma.  To reconcile this contradiction we have to examine the relevance of the concept of swadharma to the present condition of business.

In our present globalize world where we are becoming increasingly conscious of our interdependence, a rigidly compartmentalized approach, which draws uncrossable boundaries between the economic, social or political life, is not entirely valid.  Moreover socio-economic problems like poverty or unemployment falls very much within the swadharma of business.  For, business is the creator of wealth for the society and a major employer of the work force.  So tackling problems like poverty and unemployment is part of the dharmic responsibility of business.  In fact among modern social organs, business is better equipped in terms of temperament, resources, knowledge and competence than other organs for tackling the problem of poverty or unemployment.

But, when we look at the past history, the modern corporate world as a whole has not shown much creative interest in tackling the socio-economic problems like poverty or unemployment except donations in the form of charity.  However, recently there are some innovative thinking and experiments in this area like for example C.K. Prahlad’s concept of “Eradicating Poverty through Profit” through a market-oriented approach to the problem and the Bill Gate’s idea of “bringing the discipline of business to the art of giving.”  These new trends of thought when they are pursued with a dharmic vision hold a great promise for creating an equitable and inclusive economic order in the society.

The other important factor, which we have to keep in mind is that, business in our modern age is no longer merely an economic organism playing second fiddle to other organs of the society.  Business is the most powerful and leading social organ of our age.  A modern business organization is not only an economic entity but also a social, political, cultural and intellectual organism governed by Knowledge and Values and with the resources, power, competence and skill for effecting considerable changes in the outer life or the environment.  So there is nothing undharmic if a business organization lends or uses some of its resources, power or capacities to create positive changes in the economic, social and political life of the community, which lead to better quality of life for the people.  However if a business organization wants to get involved in those domains which lie entirely outside the boundaries of its swadharma like education or human rights, it is better to do it not directly, but through or in collaboration with other organizations which have the experience and expertise in that area.

So, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility, (CSR) which is gaining increasing acceptance among the corporate leaders augurs well for the future of business as well as humanity as a whole.  For modern business as a social institution has certain capacities and resources which other social organs do not possess in the same measure.  If these core competencies of business are applied creatively for the well-being and progress of humanity and earth, with a holistic spiritual and ecological vision, business can have a profound beneficial impact on the future progress of our planet.  As the noted New Age thinker, Willis Harman sums up the unique competencies of business:

 ‘As the dominant social institution on the planet business and industry will play a key role in shaping the future of the globe.  Business corporations are far more flexible and adaptive than government bureaucracy, education systems or other institutions; the ability to respond quickly to changes in the environment is part of their very nature.  Further more, business has attracted into its leadership positions some of the brightest and most competent persons in society.  For these reasons the role of business is crucial in addressing the extremely difficult times ahead.  Furthermore the dominant institution in a society needs to take the responsibility for the whole.’ (Harman.W, 1993)

However, while executing social responsibility projects the corporate leaders should have a clear understanding and relative importance of the highest aims of human development, the immediate needs of the community or society and the interests or needs of the corporate world.  For example eradicating poverty and unemployment through inclusive economic growth and creating an employable work force is an immediate need for a large section of human population in the “developing” countries.  So until these chronic problems of poverty and unemployment are to a certain extent resolved, we have to focus most of our attention and energies on these socio-economic social aims and problems.  However these material, economic and social needs are not the highest aims of human development.  Beyond the needs of physical and vital being, there are the needs of our mental, moral, aesthetic and spiritual being.  Our higher growth and destiny requires the fulfillment of these greater needs.  Awakening to this higher destiny has to be the main aim of education.  Similarly creating an employable work-force is in the long-term interests of business.  But the corporate world should not try to impose employability as the sole aim of education.  The aim of education is to prepare the individual for the whole of life and not merely for a job in the corporate world.  Our human society needs for its balanced growth not only skilled technocrats and manager but also philosophers, thinkers, poets, artists, statesmen, social reformers, saints and sages.  To prepare individuals for this balanced growth of society is one of the social responsibility of education.  So when business takes up CSR projects in education, it must keep in mind that the social responsibility of education is not the same as that of business.  Our educational institutions should not be converted into captive factories for producing skilled workforce for business.

Values of Corporate Dharma

This brings us to the question what are precisely the values, which can bring out and manifest the dharmic potential of business?  I am presenting here the broad outline of a system of values, principles and guidelines based on the dharmic vision of business which we have discussed earlier.

  • creating wealth for the society through efficient, economic and productive utilization of resources.
  • producing high quality products and services at minimum cost.
  • delighting the  customer
  • enhancing the quality of the larger economic, ecological and social environment through creative giving or sharing of wealth, knowledge, skill, expertise and resources with the community.
  • employee development not only interms of skill, knowledge and creativity but also interms of material, mental, moral and spiritual well-being of the employees.
  • truth, honesty and transparency in all dealings.
  • mutual trust and goodwill among the members of the organizational community.
  • fareness and justice in dealing with employee grievances
  • patience, understanding and compassion in dealing with ethical, professional and personal problems among employees
  • creating mutually beneficial win-win situation in all transactions
  • creativity, innovation and continuous improvement in every activity of the corporate life and progressive perfection in work
  • beauty and harmony in the equipment and organization of the material and economic life of the company.
  • progressive growth of liberty, equity and fraternity in the social and political life of the organization
  • promoting self-knowledge, self-management, compassion and service as primary leadership qualities
  • cultivating inner Peace and providing reasonable outer Security, acting as anchors of stability in a sea of change.
  • providing sufficient rest, relaxation, leisure and inner and outer space to people for reflection, renewal and growth.
  • every activity of the individual and corporate life, like for example, finance, marketing or manufacturing, should have some clearly defined professional, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual standards or ideals of perfection towards which it has to progress continually with a constant uplifting aspiration and effort.
  • felicitating triune integration: integration of the body, mind, heart, will and action of the individual around a dharmic ideal or the spiritual core of her being; integration of the personal and professional life of the employee; integration of the material, techno-economic, social, political and cultural life of the organization around its mission, vision and values, which are in turn derived from dharma.
  • creating an effective system of education, discipline and communication for internalizing these values in the consciousness of people and an efficient systems of measurement, monitoring and implementation for materializing them in the outer life.

And finally when all these values and principles are progressively actualized in the corporate life, profit and shareholder values follow as a spontaneous and inevitable result.

References:

Bagchi, Subroto,(2006) High Performance Entrepreneur, New Delhi Penguin Books, p.70-82

Burns E.M, Ralph P.L, Lerner R.E, Meacham S (1991), World Civilisation (New Delhi, Goyl Publishers and Distributors) p.305

Cowey, Stephen, (2007) Peace of Conscience, ed. Pruzan, Peter and Pruzan Kirsten, Leading with Wisdom, Spiritual based Leadership in Business, New Delhi, Response Books, p.76 to 84.

Cowey, Stephen(1998), Putting Principles first, ed: Rowan Gibson, Rethinking the Future, London, Nicholas Brealay, p.34 to 46.

Gates, Bill, Philosophy of Philanthropy, Business Today, May 7, 1999, p.60

Harman, Willis, Approaching the Millennium: Business As Vehicle for Social Transformation ed. Michael Ray and Alan Rinzlor, The New Paradigm in Business, Newyork, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, pp.

The Mother (1972) Collected Works, vol.12 (Puducherry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, p.3)

Peter, Tom and Waterman Robert,(1982) In Search of Excellence, Newyork, Harper and Row, p.280

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