The Role of Business in Community Wellbeing: AFR Article by Jennifer Westacott

This opinion article, by BCA Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott, was published in The Australian Financial Review  on 12 May 2014 under the title ‘Corporate Social Work Is More Than Just Handouts’. It is an excerpt of a speech Jennifer Westacott delivered to the Odyssey House Business Luncheon on 9 May 2014.

When we think about the role of business in contributing to what I would describe as a good society, it’s often confined to their corporate social responsibility activities. But our role and responsibility in the community is much broader than that. It’s how we behave as employers, as service providers and as global innovators that impacts most on people and communities.

The role of business as employers involves 10.5 million people who come to work with us every week.

A job is a big part of how we define ourselves. It’s our opportunity for social and economic advancement.

People’s view of business is shaped, in large part, by how they and their family members and friends are treated in the workplace. Business, in tandem with government and the education sector, needs to do more.

Human capital is going to be the absolute game-changer in responding to the global forces Australia now faces. Competition for skilled labour will be global and it will be fierce.

Developing our competency in managing people through economic transition will give us a huge comparative advantage. It is going to involve a rethink of how we recruit, train, educate and skill up people in our educational institutions, in the workplace, and over their lifetimes.

We need jobs to be well designed to reflect changing circumstances, like the ageing of our population and greater participation by women with children. This means greater flexibility in the way people are employed because they will want and need to work in different ways.

As service providers, businesses are embracing the view that it’s not good enough to see their customer interface as a series of transactions. They want to build a permanent relationship that is positive and committed.

Again, there are some big trends driving this. Customers are increasingly dictating the products and services, modes of delivery and the ethical frame they expect from us.

This will unleash a wave of customer-focused innovation where we will make another quantum leap in our living standards. Businesses will need the agility to respond to the informed and empowered consumer or they won’t be able to compete.

The flipside of the individual consumer interface is how we are seen at a community level.

On the positive side we are, for many communities, the central employer and the defining feature of the places we operate in. This brings risk and responsibilities, as we know, when we see the impact on communities where major businesses have shut down or relocated.

On the more controversial side, we know that our presence in communities as miners, as explorers, as developers is often not well regarded by those communities.

We need to be more proactive and self-regulating. Failure to take action will see governments of whatever political persuasion bring down the deadweight hand of excessive regulation.

The role of businesses, large and small, in innovation has massively improved global living standards.

Our plea to governments is to help us to create an environment for great ideas to flourish. Because notwithstanding the genius of a man like Edison, most big innovations take place through collaboration of people and enterprises, large and small.

Though the biggest responsibility companies have is to look after their shareholders and their staff, to be successful and survive into the future, companies today need a strong ethical compass.

Sponsorships and donations are important and necessary, but for many of the companies we work with at the BCA, corporate social responsibility has become much more than that. A good example is what our member companies are doing in supporting indigenous employment and economic development. It’s time for us to think about place-based disadvantage in Australia beyond indigenous communities.

If you look across the world, it is the prosperous countries that provide their citizens with greater choices and greater opportunities, and with freedom and community cohesion.

Make no mistake, if you remove or compromise the business end of the equation, that prosperity becomes very fragile and very vulnerable.