Business and Peacebuilding

As I get ready to write about where the peacebuilding world has to head next in finishing my textbook, I find myself thinking about the business world. There are groups like the Norwegian based Business for Peace which are trying to draw explicit links between the corporate and peacebuilding worlds.

That’s obviously important. However, I think it’s even more important that we take some management ideas from that world and apply them to ours.

I didn’t get to this point quickly or easily. For the first fifteen years of my professional career, I avoided the business section of bookstores and was mildly surprised when a few of my first students said they wanted to get MBAs. I was, after all, a 1960s leftist. Like many of us who went into academe, I had flirted with some democratic socialist ideas while in grad school and in my first years in the classroom.

Then in the mid-1980s, I became active in the Beyond War movement, many of whose founding members had made a lot of money in the first generation of Silicon Valley startups. In other words, they were business people.

They weren’t greedy, right wing fanatics. I still remember a discussion with Bill McGlashan who worked for a venture capital firm after some time in the Nixon White House in which we discovered that his version of democratic capitalism and mine of democratic socialism had a lot in common.

In short, I had a lot to learn and began stopping at the business section every time I went into the bookstore. I probably read more books by people with corporate backgrounds than I do by political scientists or peacebuilders, which, of course, are the fields I work in.

Put simply, part of my job as Senior Fellow for Innovation at the Alliance for Peacebuilding is to begin bringing those ideas into our fied. So, as I get ready to write that chapter (which will be about more than business), here are five key themes I will be exploring.

  • Accelerating rates of change. This is the key starting point in all areas of life as epitomized by the military acronym, VUCA (Volatile, Uncerctain, Complex, Ambiguous). If you are in the business world, you live in VUCAland in which change occurs at an accelerating or exponential rate. Change is the only constant. In business speak, this is epitomized by Moore’s law. It holds for the social and political world we peacebuilders operate in as well and is not taken seriously enough in our work.
  • Business analysts have been talking about the networked nature of life at least since Stanley Milgram’s experiment in the 1960s introduced the notion that we are only six degrees of separation apart (no, not his other, more famous experiment on our willingness to inflict punishment). Less well known is Metcalfe’s law that shows much denser and interconnected networks become as they grow. Today, we tend to focus on social networks like Facebook or Twitter. Networks go farther and define much of our lives. We need to think about them more, especially when considering how we take projects to scale.
  • Disruptive innovation, design, and experimentation. We have all heard the stories of companies like Kodak that get disrupted out of existence. We fail to notice, however, the kinds of companies that take their place that focus on principles of design, prototype building, and experimentation as developed by companies like IDEO.
  • Relationships and leadership. At about the same time I met the folks from Beyond War, I met Amy Edmondson who is now a professor at the Harvard Business School. She is one of literally hundreds of experts in the corporate world who talk about the importance of teambuilding and creating a culture of what she calls fearlessness. We often try to do that with the clients we work with, but how do we take her challenge and apply it to the population as a whole?
  • Double and triple bottom lines. Many corporate leaders talk about the need for corporate social responsibility. Some go farther and talk about a double bottom line in which companies both add to their profit (first bottom line) and help protect the planet (second bottom line). How do we go about adding a third bottom line—peacefulness. In short, how can we go about working with partners in the corporate world to build a for profit, peacebuilding sector.

And that leads to my most surprising (to me) conclusion. If I were 31 or 41 rather than 71, I might be heading off for an MBA at MIT or Stanford myself. Assuming I could get in…

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.