An Examination of the Symbiosis between Corporations and Society with Lessons for Management Education and Practice

Article excerpt

Abstract

In Biology, symbiosis describes two unlike organisms living together, and one can distinguish between parasitism and mutualism. In the former only one organism benefits at the expense of the other, while in the latter both organisms benefit from the symbiosis. In this contribution, we will show how corporations and business, once expected to provide a benefit to society, have evolved into organizations whose only concern is to maximize shareholder profits, often at the detriment of stakeholders (e.g. employees and communities) and the environment. Several recent particularly significant examples will be used in order to illustrate this point. We will also provide a thorough but accessible overview of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable management theory in order to show how businesses and management education are responding to recent events.

Keywords:

Business & Society, Symbiosis, Sustainability, Triple Bottom Line, Corporate Social Responsibility, Critical Management Studies

Introduction

In Biology, symbiosis occurs when two unlike organisms live together. A symbiotic relationship can be further subcategorized into mutualism or parasitism, the former indicating a relationship where both parties gain while the latter indicates a relationship where only one party gains from the relationship (Sapp, 2004). In this work, we will show how many corporations, previously expected to provide for the common good, have mostly evolved into organizations which generate profits for shareholders but ignore any form of social responsibility. With decisions on wages, corporations influence poverty and wealth dispersion. Through operational decisions, they consume resources e.g. virgin material and landfill space and impact the environment. Unfortunately, while some firms might genuinely seek to give back to society, many others shun such responsibility and seek only to profit. In this contribution, we will examine the symbiosis between corporations and society and call for a more mutually beneficial relationship.

In the next section, we will begin by examining the historical role of corporations. We will see that corporations, once expected to provide a benefit to society, have evolved into profit-maximizing organizations whose only goal is to generate returns for shareholders. One can follow the relationship.s evolution from mutualism to parasitism. In Section 3, we will provide some fairly recent examples of corporate greed, and irresponsible and unsustainable business practices. We draw on examples from finance, human resources, and supply chain management and highlight parasitic behavior. Section 4 provides an overview on some of the responses of business academics and practitioners to justify a more holistic view of firm performance with emphasis on the common good. This section will show how management education can help return the relationship to a mutualistic one. Concluding remarks will draw lessons from the examples and provide suggestions for ways that corporations can remain helpful, productive members of society.

History of the American Corporation . From Public Good to Public Parasite

It is only a relatively recent development that corporations are merely responsible to contribute to shareholder gains. In fact, at one point, corporations were merely chartered to better serve the needs of communities and societies. In the past corporations were given charters to perform a function for the public good. The first corporations came about in Europe during the 17th Century and were chartered to perform public functions such as building hospitals. Making profit was not even a concern of corporations until the mid 19th Century in either Europe or the United States. At all times, in the United States, legislatures had tight control over corporations and could revoke their charters at any time for the public good (New Internationalist, 2002). In early American history, the corporate existence was viewed as a "grant" of privilege from the state, and corporations were allowed to exist only to "perform a [public] service considered of general value. …