I began my career before everyone had a cellphone or an email address. Many of my bosses and higher-ups didn’t use computers, even though I was working for the industrial giant, GE, within its “eBusiness” division. Computers and the internet were so new that some departments used the internet; others did not.
Back then, an “e” business was shorthand for something innovative. It signaled a changing economy and a whole new way to sell products and make money. eBusiness and eCommerce were the hot new thing, with seemingly limitless potential and opportunity for business growth. Investors couldn’t get enough of these online business models.
We learned pretty quickly thanks to the dot com bust that sticking an “e” before your name or a “.com” after didn’t guarantee your company massive revenue or customers. The promises of companies like Pets.com or eToys.com proved to be a little short-sighted and short-lived. Jobs were lost, and millions of dollars of value evaporated overnight.
But while Pets.com is no more, other early pioneers of e-commerce are still with us. Companies like Amazon and Netflix pivoted and grew after the dot com bubble and are now among the biggest corporations in the world. They have redefined their industries. And, of course, companies like Twitter, Google, Facebook, Apple, and YouTube used the infrastructure created by the internet to create new industries, new products, and new services.
I haven’t worked for GE in a while, but I would make a safe bet that there is no part of that company that doesn’t use the internet in some way. Even though all of the “e” products and service lines didn’t necessarily work out, technology and the internet completely changed how that company did business.
If you visit the GE website now, you won’t find anything with “e” in front of it. Yes, it does have a digital division that develops business software, but gone are the days of GE hiring young, ambitious people as eBusiness analysts. (If you try to google “GE eBusiness jobs,” it autocorrects to “GE Business jobs.”) They’ve dropped the “e,” and now they just are doing business.
I am sure I am not the first person to point out to you how much the internet and technology has changed our lives. We all have a computer in our pocket more powerful than any piece of hardware I could have worked with in my first job at GE. You may be reading this on your phone or tablet — something inconceivable just a few years ago.
What is also remarkable is how this shift happened at companies like GE and others. They didn’t have a big meeting one day to announce they were removing the “e” from their job titles and that the internet would now be a part of every product line and business area. It just happened — quietly, part of the processes and operations of influential people who made decisions in the best interests of the company. Of course, it seems obvious now that technology would drive all of our business operations, but it wasn’t back then. There was still a lot to figure out, and a lot of mistakes to be made. We did figure it out, and then some, bringing innovation to our work and using technologies in new and different ways. You probably didn’t know these changes were happening at GE and other companies (unless you worked there), but they were. Now, here we are.
We are at the same place right now with business and equitable impact as we were with technology and business in the late 1990s. Companies are increasingly recognizing the need to integrate equitable impact into their operations, but they don’t know how. Mistakes are being made. Innovative ideas are being developed. We’re creating offices of social impact and product lines designed with equitable impact in mind, separate from our other business processes.
Soon, though, the companies successfully integrating equitable impact into their work will distinguish themselves from those that can’t figure it out, and customers and the markets will reward them for doing so. The nature and definition of what “business” means will shift once again — instead of referring to things as a “social enterprise” or an “impact investment” or a “business for good,” we’ll drop the modifiers and doing well BY doing good will just be how business gets done. There won’t be a big meeting to discuss it, just the shifting expectations and practices of people across companies making the decisions to maximize the full potential of their businesses.
To be a part of this change, and not be left behind, you can change your business practices in three areas:
- How you make your money: Changing your business model can help put equitable impact at the core of your operations.
- How you spend your money: Thinking about how your company spending is affecting the community around you can help create a stronger work culture and signal your values to customers.
- How you invest in your people: Seeing your employees and potential employees as assets to invest in can help reduce your turnover, increase productivity, and make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who help you achieve your business goals.
If you are successful in implementing change within these three areas, your customers may never know about the intentional process you went through to make these organizational shifts. But, like a real estate developer who saw what a building could become just by looking at a blueprint, you and your team will be able to experience these changes with pride knowing they saw the building before others even knew you could break ground.
My lifelong goal is to change how the world does business. Which is why I wrote my latest book — The Social Impact Advantage — to help you change how YOU do business. Do not fall behind the trends that are forcing companies to take equitable impact seriously, but also don’t be too bold and overpromise — you don’t want to be the Pets.com of equitable impact. Check out my book and use the resources in it to intentionally, authentically change your company so that you can do well BY doing good in a way that makes sense for you, your employees, your customers, and all your stakeholders.