Conscious Business? Hmmmm….

We aren’t really happy with the term “conscious business”, we being the group here in Brighton discussing and exploring it.

It’s a term very much tied up with “conscious capitalism” which has a history and an ongoing close link to CSR – corporate social responsibility.

It also sounds a bit weird. It hints that a business can be conscious and this suggests it is like a person, a biological entity that can be more or less “awake” and “aware”. Yet as soon as everyone has left the building to go home, what is really left? Can a business ever really be conscious? It isn’t really just the people who represent the quality of its consciousness? So, perhaps there is no such as thing as a conscious business, just the people who work in it.

Simple! Or perhaps not so. In organisational research, we often talk of the “synergy of groups”, the emergent quality of a group that cannot only be explained in terms of the separate individuals in it. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. “Team performance” can be an emergent property of six people working collaboratively, working together in ways that create a “performance” that could not easily be achieved separately. Harmony is an emergent property of a choir. But also some choirs can send a shiver down the spine in ways that others can’t through more or less definable qualities that mark them out as uniquely excellent. One football team can score goals in ways others can’t, directly as a result of these emergent properties.

Some groups react more effectively and more quickly together than others. A group can become a thing in itself, not explainable only in terms of its separate members. This synergy, these emergent properties, have fascinated organisational and social researchers for decades. When a group moves and works together as “one”, we can observe the group as a new “organism”, sensing in and behaving new and different ways, more or less conscious.

There? You see how easy it is to project that metaphor into a group or organisation? You can look at a flock of starlings and see something happening in unity that is different from the solo flight of a single starling. You can see one sports team working and moving together as a “single unit”, beating the pants off the opposing team who are “all over the place”.

But is that new unity a new organism? We see it happening at a cellular level, in biological development. Cells join up, interact, transform, develop complexity and even become more reactive, conscious and aware. Does this also happen at a human organisational level?

I believe it does. After thirty years of researching and working with businesses and organisations of all kinds and sizes, I believe that one of the emergent properties of organisation is consciousness. The main organ of consciousness in a business may well be people, working more or less effectively together in ways that enable that organisation to be more or less aware, internally and externally; aware of changes going on in its environment or in its workforce, of new opportunities, of climate change, or changes in the share price. An organisation, as a dynamic open system in a changing environment (to quote Bernard Lievegoed), can behave more or less consciously. It can react nimbly or sluggishly; it can anticipate, or panic after the fact. And it can achieve qualities of performance simply not achievable were it not to be organised in ways that are integrated, and allowing emergence properties to manifest: vision, creativity, responsiveness, invention.

And it doesn’t stop with people. Many organisations now also employ virtual and digital processes that, by and large, operate with minimal human intervention. Computer programs can now buy and sell faster and more effectively than individuals human beings. A warning of an earthquake can be triggered by the joined up data processing of computers and sensor devices, linked all over the world. We simply take the output. The internet of “things” means that flood gates can be automatically closed, sprinkler systems and smoke alarms activate in the middle of the night and, soon, whole parts of a business will run without much ongoing human intervention. A conscious business then becomes an organism that achieves synergy through both human and virtual action.

And it can do it more or less well. In the same way a human being’s consciousness depends on her quality of awareness, awakeness, her ability to sense and intuit, the health and efficiency of her internal organs, her energy levels; business can also sense more or less well, the quality of its internal and external inquiry can vary. We can improve our own consciousness with self-development, with medical help, with education, with practice, and through social collaboration. So too a business or organisation. Its quality of consciousness can be developed, enhanced (and degraded). A business that is unable to sense what it needs to do next, that lacks purpose, is lower in consciousness.

Even as a metaphor this works pretty well. The emergent property of consciousness in a business could be a metaphysical reality; or it could be a useful metaphor; or it could be both.

So many businesses fail because they don’t behave consciously. They “sleep” through needed change, they don’t “see” what is coming towards them over the horizon, they fail to respond or react too slowly.

A conscious business behaves like a conscious individual. It also achieves synergy. Part of this synergy is a sense of collective purpose towards achieving goals, reaching visions, realising dreams, or journeying together, in ways that can’t be realised individually in the same way. People are drawn towards a conscious business because the business opens up space for potential to be realised in ways that only organisation can achieve. We want to “join in”. In some cases we may give up our individual purpose to the group and “go with the flow”.In other cases it is our individual purpose that adds to, and enhances the collective pot. It will change over time, because the organisation, to be conscious, behaves as a dynamic open system in a changing environment.

Yet here is the rub. We are still left with a term to describe all of this that sounds a bit new-agey, a bit old-hat and linked to the baggage of CSR. So we are gently inquiring further. New language, new metaphors, or perhaps simply rediscovering the old as something new.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Pete Burden says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Nice one Paul. Would be very interested to hear others views about the phrase Conscious Business, which is also in my mind associated with spirituality. Nothing wrong with spirituality (or CSR/social enterprise), but I think we are speaking about something else.

  2. Pete Burden says:

    Nice one Paul. Have reblogged to

    I would be very interested to hear others views about the phrase Conscious Business, which is also in my mind associated with spirituality.

    Nothing wrong with spirituality (or CSR/social enterprise), but I think we are speaking about something else.

  3. Pete Burden says:

    Lovely stuff.

    I still think the idea of a ‘conscious business’ works better as a metaphor, and I agree with Ralph Stacey there is perhaps no such thing as an organisation as we commonly imagine it.

    Instead there are conversations between people that follow certain habits and sometimes discernible patterns. So there are organised (and disorganised) conversations. Organised by us.

    From these conversations we project (construct) the idea of an organisation.

    Metaphors are useful though. So, for example, I am not against the idea of ‘waking up’ an organisation if it helps to talk about it in that way.

  4. Louis says:

    This was a really lovely article to read thank you

  5. Louis says:

    I am currently searching for new ways of thinking about creating a service that is sustainable and so have come to the world of ‘conscious business’ through this route. Any organisation is inevitably greater than the sum of its parts. That is the magic of synergy, or emergent properties. Being new to this field of enquiry, I wonder what principles a business would operate from in order to be ‘conscious’. I am guessing it would use something like the Johari’s window system, being aware of the 4 areas of awareness: open/public, blind spots, hidden areas, unknown/emergent stuff. Anyway, am really interested in the possibilities created even just by virtue of the term ‘conscious business’. It starts a thought process, as opposed to repeating old habits, thoughtlessly.

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