Our societies need the voices and efforts of corporate leaders in order to tackle the inequality and social dislocation caused by technology and globalization. An incremental extension of corporate social responsibility activities will not be sufficient. The growing divide between winners and losers has become a specter that haunts both business and society—and it is time to confront it.
Business leaders need to balance two apparently conflicting objectives. First, they need to secure the sustainability and prosperity of their own companies. This remains a CEO’s prime responsibility, and it has become much harder in an era defined by lower growth, impatient investors, geopolitical uncertainty, and extremely rapid technological change. Second, they need to shape the conditions for continued and more inclusive economic prosperity and, in particular, for global economic integration and technological progress.
To achieve those ends, we propose that business leaders embrace a new agenda comprising seven areas of opportunity. (See the exhibit.) It will not be easy, and it will entail unfamiliar and uncomfortable choices, including, in some cases, deemphasizing short-term returns in order to support economic and societal progress and strengthen the enterprise for the longer term. But we see this as a tradeoff worth making.
1. Shape the next wave of globalization. Globalization has been fluid across its several centuries of development and will almost certainly continue to evolve. Whereas the last wave of globalization centered on accessing foreign markets and creating low-cost global supply chains, the next wave could follow a very different pattern. In his 2016 commencement speech at New York University, GE CEO Jeff Immelt described what this could look like: more decentralized, more geographically differentiated, more digitally interconnected, more cognizant of social impact and the importance of building capabilities rather than exploiting labor cost differentials.
Business leaders can take an active role in shaping the next phase of globalization, looking beyond cost-based offshoring and emphasizing the benefits of trade and technology across a wider geographic and demographic base. Advanced manufacturing technologies, for example, are starting to reorder the globalization roadmap that’s been in place for the past few decades: flattening scale curves, increasing flexibility, and enabling production to move closer to end markets. Software, sensors, and analytics are shifting value creation from standalone products to products plus services. Businesses can take advantage of these trends to reconnect with their customers and their communities. We already see companies localizing time-sensitive and highly customizable forms of production, particularly in the fast apparel and automotive industries, thus turning global supply chains into two-way streets.
2. Support entrepreneurial business ecosystems. Several decades of economic progress have resulted in a concentration of economic activity in larger enterprises and a decline in startup activity. Depending on how we harness it, further technological progress could either exaggerate or ameliorate this divide.The emergence of platform businesses, which facilitate the collaboration of thousands of individuals and enterprises in dynamic ecosystems, could help restore balance and sustainability. Such ecosystems make it possible for individuals and small firms to participate in technological progress, catalyzing both employment and innovation.
As corporations rethink their global supply chains and business models, creating ecosystems of suppliers and aspiring entrepreneurs could be part of the journey. Take, for example, providers of cloud-based web services, which give young companies access to scale benefits and flexibility previously unavailable to them. Such ecosystems are not just the purview of web companies. Leading energy companies are investing in decentralized energy grids, demonstrating the broad feasibility of such approaches. Toyota’s integrated and highly collaborative supply network, much celebrated for both its leanness and resilience, illustrates that ecosystems are also important for traditional manufacturing companies.
3. Leverage technology from front to back. Technology’s effect on humans depends on how we choose to develop and use it. If we leverage it from the back office forward, focusing mainly on increasing efficiency and optimizing internal processes, then our use of technology will result primarily in the displacement of labor. We will miss opportunities not only to enhance value for customers but also to create innovative jobs and improve people’s lives. Instead, businesses should start from the front, with a clear focus on solving unmet customer needs and delivering tangible new value.
Using technologies to spur innovation and give people more fulfilling lives is an opportunity in nearly all sectors of the economy. But this inclusive approach may require some uncomfortable choices. Take emerging blockchain technology applications, which could have vast potential in financial services (currency, payment solutions, digital assets), insurance (contract and identity management), entertainment (performing rights management), and many other sectors. The benefits could be extracted either primarily through efficiency enhancements—by eliminating intermediaries and probably shedding many jobs in the process—or through the creation of valuable services and markets.
Could we imagine that those who originate and develop new technologies take some responsibility to apply them in an inclusive manner, creating new benefits and services while addressing transitional frictions?
4. Invest in human capital. An increase in the dynamism and diversity of business environments means that people need to adapt their skills at a faster pace. This includes their ability to take part in the production as well as the consumption of new goods and services.
Finding effective and affordable ways to help people acquire transferable skills during their careers, not just before they start out, is a large social challenge. Education is critical in creating career mobility and equality of opportunity, which are at least as important as—and closely tied to—income gaps. But it takes too long for new work skills to become codified and for the education system to deliver them.
Firms can help close the loop—for example, by working with online education providers or taking direct responsibility for reskilling. As new tools become available to build or rebuild human capital more effectively and efficiently, corporations could seek to broaden their mandate in this area, both with their own staff and in the communities where they operate. We also see it as paramount that business leaders be consistent, passionate advocates for improving access to high-quality education for all ages and income levels.
5. Apply a social business mindset. To contribute to society, and to gain its support, businesses must be deeply embedded in it. One way corporate leaders can achieve this is to establish social businesses that are adjacent to their core business models. This puts corporations in a position to solve some of society’s most fundamental problems by leveraging their core skills, not by making tangential and ultimately unsustainable philanthropic contributions.
Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus has been a passionate champion and advocate of social business and its ability to create sustainable value for challenged communities. He defines social businesses as those that provide clear benefits to underserved populations, return the initial invested capital, and reinvest dividends to create sustainable enterprises. Social businesses founded by Danone (small, low-cost portions of vitamin-enhanced yogurt produced in small community factories) and Essilor (affordable vision care for millions of low-income individuals around the world) show the feasibility and potential of such approaches. Social businesses can also build capabilities inside the sponsoring corporation and surface innovations that can be deployed more broadly.
Financial inclusion is often pivotal in making social business models work. Giving underserved groups access to payment and money transfer services, deposit accounts, credit, and other financial tools can have a far-reaching impact on well-being. It has been cited as an important factor not only in poverty reduction and economic growth but also in gender equality.
While governments can lay the groundwork for financial inclusion, the private sector can play a major role in driving rapid innovation and expanding access in a sustained and scalable way. Just four years after telecom company Safaricom launched the mobile-phone-based money transfer service M-Pesa in Kenya, for example, 70% of adults had adopted it.
A social business mindset can also lead to meaningful progress on hard-to-crack issues like long-term youth unemployment. In Europe, business-led alliances work closely with public agencies, thousands of volunteers, and employers to offer structured education and skill building programs. These social business vehicles have been three to four times more effective than standard programs in re-integrating young Europeans and immigrants into labor markets, thus helping companies tap new pools of talent.
6. Rebalance and align rewards. People’s sense of self-worth is closely linked to the nature of their work and their relative compensation. This is especially true when we consider not only wages and benefits but also career mobility, merit-based recognition, and the intangible value of purpose (often related to some higher social goal) in work.
Mismatches between rewards and performance along the entire pay scale, from entry-level workers to leaders, undermine perceptions of fairness and faith in the system. Aligning performance with rewards presents an opportunity for corporate leaders to directly shape people’s perceptions of self-worth, fairness, and access to opportunity. Many companies are starting to increase remuneration and support for lower-paid employees. In the years ahead, more will be needed.
7. Renew and own the narrative. The current crisis is as much about inspiration and ideas as it is about economics. The case for globalization is a hard sell if it doesn’t address the obvious distributive side effects of overall economic advancement. The same goes for technology, in which the absence of a more inclusive narrative has already sparked vigorous backlash (for example, taxi strikes in France and elsewhere). What’s more, the storytellers—the “elites” of business and government—are increasingly mistrusted and have lost their audience. In this vacuum, stories appealing to instinct, fear, and emotion take hold.
This matters. Narratives shape perceptions and political reality, which in turn shape economic reality. Business leaders have traditionally avoided broader societal issues and have focused on their narrower role. In the coming years, we believe that they will need to take a more active stance—to play offense and not just defense. It is time for a credible, inclusive, and trust-inspiring narrative, both for the direction of our societies and the sharing of benefits and opportunity within them.
BCG Henderson Institute analysis based on US Census Bureau, Business Dynamics Statistics; OECD.
See for example a BCG co-initiated one: Joblinge
Defining what needs to be done is a first logical step, but it is only a start. In conversations with CEOs about their role in supporting economic and societal progress, many pointed out the challenging context in which they operate. Between boards, major investors, activists, and potential acquirers, there is tremendous pressure to focus on short-term profitability and value maximization. The regulatory frameworks in many markets do not make a broader focus any easier.