New global model for engagement could bolster business

Business is under increasing scrutiny and pressure to re-evaluate the nature of its future evolution. 

This is against the background of prominent international and local investigations into malfeasance and growing global inequality.

It is clear that a new model for global engagement may present an opportunity for business to play a more meaningful role in the future of work and society.

I recently represented the employer, i.e. business, as a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) international panel of experts in Geneva, on invitation from the International Organisation for Employers (IOE), the “global voice of business”. 

The ILO consults on a tripartite structure with labour, government and business.

Current ILO engagement

At first glance, this model appears representative, but further investigation reveals a more sinister reality. According to the Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI), published by INSEAD, South Africa scores among the worst in the world in terms of the quality of relationships (in an index of 118 countries):

- Between business and government: 101/118

- Between business and labour: 118/118

The numbers reveal that business is in an untenable situation and that a severe imbalance is present within the apparently balanced model.

Yet, in the relationship between government and labour, with the internal South African tripartite alliance, it may be argued that SA scores among the best in the world (not measured in GTCI). 

Even the newly elected ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa (although now a darling of the market), was the first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and a key player in the formation of trade union federation Cosatu.

The need for knowledge

If one accepts the assumption that the world is experiencing unprecedented, rapid and dramatic societal change in a world that may be described as VUCASSU (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous, Self-interested, Simultaneous and Utilitarian) one key question is: Which entity in society is responsible for producing the new knowledge that will enable the new emerging society?

It is unlikely that such new knowledge will emerge from the three entities in the structure above, as all three conduct research mainly in their own interest, although they all purport to exist in the interest of society.

The entity most saliently responsible for the creation of new knowledge is higher education, i.e. universities and other research institutions. 

Business, government and labour do consult academia, but to paraphrase Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow: “When (they) ask for advice, (they) are usually looking for an accomplice.” 

Although perfect academic objectivity can prove elusive, the fundamental DNA in universities of scientific methods of inquiry presents the best opportunity for the generation of the new knowledge which society so desperately requires to thrive in a new era.

While international bodies such as the International Association of Universities do exist, their influence within the global structure of engagement may be dramatically enhanced. 

A rational approach to societal development

Furthermore, there is a growing sense that many governments no longer represent the real needs of the citizenry. 

The fact that SA rates among the protest capitals of the world illustrates the growing discontent as social exclusion and marginalisation escalates.

With growth rates nowhere close to required levels for the alleviation of poverty and unemployment, the country can ill afford further loss of productivity due to social unrest. 

For that reason, a more comprehensive global model for engagement should also include representative bodies that enhance active citizen participation.

With the enhanced involvement of academia and improved citizen activation, a quintagonal model emerges that presents a more balanced form of global engagement.


A new model for global engagement

This model introduces tremendous opportunity for business to drive a more rational and scientific approach to societal development. 

It presents an opportunity for evidence-based rather than ideology-driven solutions to addressing poverty and unemployment.

The bizarre paradox is that so much ideology presented as citizen-centric by politicians emerges as counter-citizen in the longer term (e.g. Venezuela). 

While business may never be argued to be ideology-free, it is at the very least apolitical and ideology-agnostic if given the opportunity to thrive.

SA has highly rated scientific research institutions and a citizenry hungry for meaningful and respectful connection. 

To harness these opportunities, business must examine a closer relationship with globally recognised local academic institutions and find new ways of engaging with citizens in ways that transcend the trite customer-supplier relationships.

Both citizens and academic institutions offer business wisdom and insight that may create a more balanced and future-oriented society.

Dr Morné Mostert is director of the Institute for Futures Research, a strategic foresight unit at Stellenbosch University.

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