When corporate leaders appear to lack the thinking needed to solve major challenges, it might actually be because they lack the ability to express themselves, says Peter Knight
Have we lost the ability to write? Is this blocking business from putting forward good ideas about sustainability?
Words, spelling and grammar continue to make news. The mandarins in the UK civil service have been banned from using certain words and phrases. They must not use “drive” unless writing about vehicles and products; can’t use “deploy” unless writing about the military; and “going forward” is forbidden. Quite right.
The Harvard Business Review recently carried a blog by a publisher of technical manuals arguing that business should only hire people who can write well. Confusion caused by bad writing, he says, leads to mistakes and poor business performance.
But why should poor writing prevent business from contributing to sustainable development thinking? Because until you write well you won’t have good ideas. Writing is not only about expression – it’s the pathway to the origination of the ideas themselves.
Governments set the policy frameworks; academics think creatively; business thinks in practical terms – solving problems with sensible plans and effective actions. As they say, if you want to get a vaccine up a mountain, don’t ask the World Heath Organisation, call Coca-Cola.
Business has a vested interest in solving world problems and, in turn, the world needs business to think leading thoughts. This is because we live in a disrupted world, entirely of our own making. Digital processesare destroying trusted business models and reorganising the commercial furniture. Climate change is doing similar things with the boardroom table.
While the disruption causes pain for some (especially the poorly educated), it is creating huge opportunities for others. We may not often think so, but the educationally privileged who read this magazine are living in boom times. We’re probably the richest we have ever been and are facing opportunities that could make us even richer: as long as we can take the poor and economically excluded with us. That is called sustainable development, and business has the knowledge and reason to contribute.
Companies need to think of ways to improve life for the many, and in so doing improve their own fortunes. Most in business find this a surprisingly difficult idea to grasp, but there are deeper-thinking chief executives who are leading their companies in the right direction.
It’s happening, for example, in the food and fibre supply chains, especially cocoa and cotton. Chocolate makers, for example, know they will not have a product in the near future unless they help sort out the social and environmental problems restricting the supply of cocoa. The same goes for cotton.
True thought leaders know that business must also find the gold at the base of the pyramid. This is the idea that so fascinated the business community a few years ago: making high quality affordable products for poor people and thereby drawing millions into the cash economy. Companies will have to return to the task if they are really to reap the benefits of emerging markets.
Little, if anything, is heard from business on this topic. Actually, it’s really difficult to find sustainability thought leaders in the business community. Very few companies have blogs that offer pioneering ideas. Most of the ideas that are promoted on TED and other platforms – Quora, Medium et al – are generated by academics and entrepreneurs who sell ideas rather than products or services. And as for LinkedIn groups – naked self-promotion has totally devalued their currency.
Is this dearth of thought simply because business does not have ideas, or because it can’t articulate them? The inability to write things down clearly has to be a contributing factor.
My company thinks and writes for business. We know how hard it is to write well and to find people who can write. This is becoming more difficult as millennials emerge from far too many years of further education with little capacity – or desire – to write clearly.
The death of long-form writing and reading – as opposed to tweets and Facebook postings – makes it difficult to develop and articulate ideas. This is because the act of writing is the pathway to developing clear thinking and good ideas.
And herein lies another opportunity. Businesses that can develop great ideas and write them down clearly are in a winning position – not only for the execution of the idea (you have to be able to tell your own people) but also for your reputation as an innovator and thought leader.
And such a reputation can be dramatically enhanced if the ideas help make the world a better place.comms communications corporate leaders Language Peter Knight sustainable development
November 2013, London, UK
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