On Purpose: Professors Develop a Framework For One of the Most Talked About But Ill-Defined Concepts in Modern Business
As the “Great Resignation” continues — with some 38 million workers leaving their jobs behind in 2021 amid the pandemic — Gerard “Gerry” George thinks the concept of purpose might hold the key for employers to reverse the trend.
That’s the topic of the Georgetown McDonough’s management professor’s latest paper, “Purpose in the For-Profit Firm: A Review and Framework for Management Research,” published in the Journal of Management in January alongside co-authors Martin R. Haas, Anita M. McGahan, Simon J.D. Schillebeeckx, and Paul Tracey.
“There was a lot of anecdotal evidence that says, ‘If you have purpose, people find meaning,’” said George, who also is the Tamsen and Michael Brown Family Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The next step is looking for empirical evidence to answer specific questions. “‘How do I better frame purpose? How do I embed purpose within the culture? And then how do I get the benefits of that and share those benefits?’ What is important now from an academic perspective is to really create that framework for understanding how that evidence matters.”
In the paper, George and his coauthors develop a six-point framework for future scholarship, including factors such as internal and external drivers; framing, in terms of mission and vision, values, and narratives; formalizing and realizing; and institutional context.
Below, George talks about how the pandemic—and the whys underpinning his work—underscores the importance of firms’ focus on purpose.
Why this topic of research? Why now?
With the pandemic, people are now looking at, ‘What is meaning?’ and what they do, right? And we’ve realized that people are questioning, ‘Is there a better allocation of my time? Do I find meaning in what I do? Do I love my colleagues? And am I working for the right organization?’ That’s one element that’s really helping us rethink what it is that we do and how we find meaning in the work that we do.
At the same time, organizations themselves are thinking about their role in society. The pandemic and climate change, and all of these [issues] have put a big mirror to them to sort of say, ‘What are you doing to make this world better?’ In some ways, it’s a perfect storm.
You and your co-authors write that ‘Businesses not only produce goods and services, they produce people.’ What are the implications of that? And how can purpose play a role in creating better people?
I come from the view that organizations leave imprints on people, rather than just people leaving imprints on organizations. We sort of glorify one side of it as individuals within organizations, but we don’t look at organizations imprinting upon individuals as people. As individuals leave, they recreate their environment. You take your experience, whatever that experience is, and you go to a new place, and that leaves an imprint on the team around you. So that’s why I think that becomes more important.
When did it become not good enough to just be a good widget maker in the business world?
I don’t think there was an individual, specific moment of epiphany, but what we are seeing now is discussion of individuals and value creation and value capture. And now society is asking us, ‘Hey, you’ve captured all of this value in terms of profits, how about coming back and contributing to a better society?’
And the pandemic has focused a lot on this. It’s been a soul-searching moment for businesses.
You and your colleagues establish a framework and then outline further areas for research. What are you most interested in exploring next?
My initial thinking is that there are three big areas organizations need to work on: How do you frame purpose? How do you formalize it, meaning how do you embed it within the organization? And then how do you realize it? The work that I’m doing now is on this idea of formalizing.
But really, for a management professor, you have to think of, ‘How do I formalize? Where does structure fall in place? How do I embed it in our values? How do I put a governance system where my board is aligned with what the CEO is talking about, and also what my employees really want to do on the ground.’ That is really where I’m pushing.
This story was originally featured in the Georgetown Business Spring 2022 Magazine.