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A Hackathon to “Reinvent Business”

Can social technology enable companies and the people within them to make better decisions? Can it improve corporate behavior? Can it perhaps even help restore the social contract between business and society? These are just some of the questions to be tackled by the “Reinvent Business” hackathon – a collaborative, rapid ideation and programming workshop – to be held in San Francisco on June 9-10, Hosted by frog and LRN, in partnership with BSR, Carnegie Mellon University, Dachis Group, Net Impact, Silicon Valley Bank, Fast Company, and the World Economic Forum, the two-day event will bring together software developers, designers, gamers, film makers, writers, business leaders, and other creative minds to imagine, design, and build a more human and truly social enterprise. The goal is both simple and bold: to develop concepts and prototypes for innovative products and services that have the capacity to transform business from within.

The World Economic Forum formed a Global Agenda Council on Values in Decision-Making (of which I am a member) in response to the current economic crisis to realign our collective mindset and develop practical approaches for a more moral economy. It has developed an ambitious agenda to help organizations translate human values into practices and behaviors that strengthen our institutions and positively impact the state of the world. New challenges call for new approaches, and we hope that with this hackathon as the starting point, we can engage the tech and creative communities in an ongoing constructive dialogue on how technology, and especially social technology, can change corporate behavior.

This need for behavior change, for “reinventing business,” is an urgent one, considering the growing number of voices that observe a crisis of capitalism and demand its fundamental transformation. In an op-ed piece for the Huffington Post, “The End of Capitalism – What Comes Next?,” World Economic Forum Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab draws a clear line between the original, defensible idea of the free market economy and the worrisome decoupling of the financial system and value-creation that makes an overhaul of its technical aspects mandatory. But he also argues that simply correcting excesses is not enough – we need a more radical reset. Schwab reminds us of the Stakeholder Principle he introduced in 1971, which is now more relevant than ever, propelled by the rise of social technologies: “In an age when social networks are enabling greater participation and transparency, companies will only be able to achieve economic success if they can generate long-term benefits not just for their shareholders, but also for the common good.”

While most companies will subscribe to that point of view rhetorically, the disconnection between business and society (and, as studies show, between management and employees) is indisputable. From Occupy Wall Street to public resignation letters in the New York Times, the widening ‘trust gap’ between business and society can’t be ignored. In a recent column, The Economist contends that companies should worry less about their reputations and more about how they do business. And indeed, increasingly, consumers and citizens demand that companies match their words to their actions, far beyond just Mission Statements, Codes of Conduct, and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. For today’s consumers and citizens, integrity means that a firm’s decisions and behaviors are fundamentally and consistently aligned with its values and principles as well as those of its stakeholders (which include society at large).

Yet the crisis of capitalism is not only a crisis of integrity, it is also one of meaning. “It is the job of companies to produce meaning,” writes management philosopher John Hagel, and with a growing number of consumers and employees expressing a strong desire for purpose beyond profits, and even the Harvard Business Review espousing happiness as a new economic paradigm, this appears to be a ripe time for reinvention. As the world becomes more interconnected and interdependent, the lines between the corporate and the social, the professional and the personal blur, and the younger generation of netizens in particular expects heightened levels of transparency, responsibility, and inspiration – both as consumers and employees. Being “In Search of Excellence” therefore no longer suffices; companies and their leaders now need to pursue significance.

Achieving this vision requires changes in two key dimensions of our economy: what we consider to be “value” and the values that guide how we create it. We need a more inclusive value definition that is respectful of all stakeholders’ needs, fully aligned with human values, and transcending the merely transactional; and we need inclusive models of value-creation that are inherently social.

At the national level, Bhutan’s Gross Happiness Index, as an alternative to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has gained many admirers, and both the French and the UK governments have begun to emulate it. Moreover, there are supra-national organizations and NGOs such as the New Economics Foundation in the UK that have long proposed new indicators of economic progress grounded in the belief that we need a more holistic, integrated understanding of the economy instead of one that is purely based on financial terms.

At the corporate level, social media and networks have disrupted traditional paradigms of productivity and organizational behavior, and enabled participatory models of value creation that fully harness human potential by leveraging social technologies to maximize social capital (e.g. enterprise social networks, crowdsourcing). Consequently, the social enterprise of the 21st century recognizes social capital – in other words: talent, inside and outside of the organization – as its key asset. In his article, Klaus Schwab describes this as a significant paradigm shift:

“Capital is being superseded by creativity and the ability to innovate – and therefore by human talents – as the most important factors of production. If talent is becoming the decisive competitive factor, we can be confident in stating that capitalism is being replaced by ‘talentism.’ Just as capital replaced manual trades during the process of industrialization, capital is now giving way to human talent. I am convinced that this process of transformation will also lead to new approaches within the field of economics. It is indisputable that an ideology founded on personal freedom and social responsibility gives both individuals and the economy the greatest possible scope to develop.”

With the rise of “talentism,” the need for a real understanding of the common human values that connect organizations and individuals is becoming ever more important. Transparency, inclusivity, individual empowerment, and organizational responsiveness are crucial in nurturing businesses’ social fabric and facilitating empathy and collaboration. Yet, the challenge remains: How do we translate these values into day-to-day corporate behavior and into tangible, personal experiences? How can companies become open organizations that harness and build social capital both inside and outside of their institutional boundaries?

This is where our “Reinvent Business” hackathon comes in. Whether it is a mobile app that uses real-time peer feedback from social networks to help address ethical dilemmas, or a tracker that captures and measures alternative types of value, or a data visualization tool that illustrates the unintended consequences and the externalities of decisions, or an ‘empathy app’ that lets you see the world through someone else’s eyes, we hope for concepts that radically rethink the current business frameworks while at the same time offering practical solutions to business leaders and employees.

To be clear: We don’t expect this hackathon to produce any silver bullets, nor do we aim to “productize away” the deep and complex challenges of a moral economy and a more human enterprise. But we are poised to spawn a conversation by tackling concrete problem spaces that might inspire further-reaching, broader solutions.

Learn more about the "Reinvent Business" hackathon: http://www.reinventbusinesshackathon.com/overview.html

To participate in the "Reinvent Business" hackathon, apply here: http://www.reinventbusinesshackathon.com/apply.html

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.