STEP BACK, WAY BACK. THINK OF THE MAJESTICALLY spinning globe we live on. What comes to mind? The striated blue and white marble that the astronauts first saw, vivid against the endless blackness of space? Or the familiar shapes of the continents, with green lowlands and the ridges of mountains like backbones pressing up through the earth? Perhaps you see the play of primal forces—water and wind—as they rapidly shift and move in cloud patterns across the expanse of land and sea. Or take a look at the lights that glitter on its darkened surfaces, connected by currents of electricity that allow us to communicate instantly with anyone, anywhere. Sense the uneasy alliances of democracies, socialisms, monarchies, and dictatorships; the conflicts constantly flaring up, threatening to ignite larger conflagrations, as the interests of cultures and peoples chafe against each other around the globe.
Only a few decades have passed since space travel opened our eyes to the awesome sight of our shared home suspended in the void. Since then, our world seems to have become more fragmented than ever, even as we are bound together more tightly than ever—beyond nation, religion, or ideology—within the web of commerce. Networks of reciprocity now connect the penthouses of Park Avenue with the shantytowns outside Nairobi. Through the development of the capitalist business corporation, we have taken an extraordinary evolutionary step into a complex global interdependence. These giant organizations—Mitsubishi, Nestlé, and DaimlerChrysler, or some so familiar that they go by acronyms such as IBM, GE, GM, HP—are liberated from the constraints of location and national affiliation, extending their influence from Boston to Bangkok. Operating within the stratosphere of international capital markets, they have amassed resources and power that rival those of many nations. In fact, of the one hundred largest economies in the world, fifty-one are multinational corporations and only forty-nine are actually sovereign states. Between their economic clout and their cross-cultural people power, business corporations represent a leap in humanity's capacity to organize for a shared purpose.
Generating a constant demand for creativity and innovation, businesses have literally driven the transformation of the modern world. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, which became Bell Telephone, which gave birth to Bell Labs, which created the transistor, which brought in the electronic information age. The list of consumer goods that have appeared in an evolutionary eye blink—from toothpaste to liquid floor wax to aspirin to contact lenses—is virtually endless. We've traveled from the horse and buggy to the SUV in less than one hundred years because of the relentless demand that business creates for the new. And it's only getting faster. Disney is producing and launching a product every five minutes. Sony launches three new products per hour. Seventy percent of Hewlett-Packard's revenue comes from products that didn't exist a year ago. This constant rush to market has dramatically improved and transformed human life—doubling our life expectancy, improving the quality of living, and expanding the horizon of possibility into the stars.
At the same time, the rush to capture more market share, propelled by the profit motive, has caused untold damage to this planet and its people. Burmese villagers recently sued energy giant Unocal for “encouraging” the Myanmar military—hired to oversee the construction of a gas pipeline through the country—to subject the villagers to forced labor, murder, rape, and torture. Coca-Cola is under scrutiny from watchdog organizations for water pollution and for creating “opportunity” from water scarcity. It's hardly refreshing to read in their 1993 annual report that “all of us in the Coca-Cola family wake up each morning knowing that every single one of the world's 5.6 billion people will get thirsty that day. If we make it impossible for these 5.6 billion people to escape Coca-Cola, then we assure our future success for many years to come. Doing anything less is not an option.” The momentum of the corporate juggernaut is so powerful—fueled by the most basic human survival and status needs—that altering its course seems almost impossible. “We are not just marching toward disaster,” says noted business consultant and author Ichak Adizes, “we are sprinting toward it.”
However, there is another powerful force working within corporations—an unpredictable human force. The breadth and diversity of people brought together within them, beyond nation, beyond religion, race, or caste, is utterly new. Over one million people work at Wal-Mart, the largest employer in the world. McDonald's may be the largest employer of youth on the planet because McDonald's is nearly everywhere. And as more and more people engage with each other in a globalizing workplace—the haves brushing shoulders with the have-nots, one culture pollinating another—a pressure is building. Inside and outside of these organizations, there is a growing appreciation of the effects of corporate activity on the planet and its people, a dawning recognition that we are one humanity inhabiting one world.
What if these gargantuan entities, filled with the creative potential of thousands of human beings, were to awaken to this new global reality? I asked this question of some thirty business leaders and consultants engaged in the nitty-gritty of corporate change. They all agree that if business were to awaken, and then to change, it would have an unprecedented impact—transforming the world in ways we cannot even imagine. In fact, some say that it would create the context for a new level of global consciousness. But can the corporate juggernaut—embedded as it is in all of the economic systems on this planet—really transform itself fundamentally? What would it take to free the creativity and stop the destructiveness of these powerful engines of commerce? Change at this level has never been consciously undertaken before. Will it happen? That depends, these remarkable individuals are saying: World-transforming change is possible, but only if we are willing. And that big “if” will determine what kind of future we will have—or whether we will have any future at all.