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Future of the Corporation Research Programme

Future of the Corporation Research Programme

The Future of the Corporation is a new initiative by the British Academy that will address the purpose of business and its role in society. Through this research programme we will ask; should businesses have a wider role in society? How should businesses be responding to new scientific and technological opportunities and our changing economic, environmental, and social needs? Is the balance of power between corporations, shareholders, and stakeholders right? And how can businesses gain and restore our trust?

The Research Programme

The Future of the Corporation will draw together the very best academics from across the world in all the relevant disciplines of the humanities and social sciences to address how the corporation needs to be adapted to make it fit for the 21st century. Over the past few years we have seen growing concern about how the corporate sector operates and the British Academy will address these issues through a two-phase research programme. The first phase of research will last from autumn 2017 until autumn 2018 and the second from autumn 2018 for a further two years. 

Programme Aims

Core aims of the commissioned research are:

  • To be a proactive partner in the movement for engaging a wide range of business leaders around the world to bring about positive change.
  • To shape and guide policy through evidence based-policy recommendations for the UK and worldwide that will enable governments to support purposeful businesses.
  • To influence business practice through recommendations for change that achieve profitable, sustainable outcomes.
  • To advance the academic foundations and intellectual knowledge in the area.
  • To produce high profile publications in leading academic and policy journals. 
  • To influence how business is taught and researched in business schools and universities around the world.

The landscape review

For the first phase of research, we have commissioned 10 separate research projects through a range of leading academics that will provide a landscape review of the main issues in each of the areas and alternative approaches that can be taken to address them. The review will propose an agenda for more substantial in-depth research projects in the second phase of research. All aspects of business from large-scale global corporates to social enterprises and family-owned businesses across the world will be relevant subjects of study and analysis and researchers will be encouraged to interact with the advisory group of business and financial institution leaders associated with the programme. 

What are the research areas?

What does history tell us about the role of the corporation in society?

To what extent has business historically been associated with a social purpose?  How has the purpose of business changed over time? Were there periods during which business was regarded as making a particularly valuable contribution to society? What has contributed to the rise and decline of business organizations in different regions of the world?  What, for example, were the factors contributing to the rise and subsequent decline of enterprise in the Middle East over several centuries and the relative decline of British business in relation to other industrialized countries over the past 150 years? How has business been depicted in contemporary literature over time and around the world?  How have families that engage in business been regarded?  What are the examples of highly regarded businesses in history and what can be learnt from them? Why has the corporation emerged in different places, at different times, and for different activities?

What is corporate purpose, and why does it matter for society?

There is strong consensus that businesses need to have a sense of purpose and clear understanding of their role in society, but what is meant by corporate purpose?  Is it an important and distinct concept in promoting responsible business?  How do companies define and operationalize corporate purposes, and how do they implement them in achieving socially as well as privately beneficial outcomes? How can businesses be more effective at articulating their purpose and the underlying contract between society and the corporation? How can businesses redefine what their purpose is to help contribute to the prosperity of everyone in society within a sustainable environment? Could the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals help define and shape corporate purpose in the future? What are stakeholder expectations of corporate purpose? Does corporate purpose affect recruitment and staff retention? How can businesses create and ensure they have effective and meaningful corporate purpose? Do businesses need a more philosophical approach to corporate purpose that can better chime with increasingly shared values within society?

What is trust and trustworthiness in business?

There is an acute awareness of how lack of trust has been a significant theme in public dialogue over the past decade but what makes for trustworthy businesses, and how can businesses become more trusted than they have been in the past? What fuels distrust? Are there particular forms of ownership and governance that can assist with the promotion of trustworthy business? Can regulation and public policy contribute to making business and financial institutions trustworthy? Do corporate leaders, customers, the public, and other stakeholders view trust differently? Are there dimensions of trust in business?If so, do we need a more multi-dimensional approach to what is included in the concept of trust and how do businesses respond to this? Is there a relationship between trust and trustworthiness and levels of inequality and vulnerability in society? Does the corporation hold too much power? What can we learn from the evolution of trust and trustworthy businesses throughout history? What can historical and fictional literature tell us about trust in business through the ages? Why are partnerships such as the guilds and family-owned businesses sometimes seen as more trustworthy than other forms of businesses?

What is corporate culture and how can businesses instil strong sense of values in their organizations?  What role does leadership have to play in this?

What is defined as ‘good’ corporate culture and behaviour, and is it the responsibility of senior leadership to uphold the values of an organisation and build an ethical culture? What are the challenges to ensure that ethical, sustainable, and societal values are effective within an organisation? What are the main factors contributing to disconnect between corporate values as they are articulated at the top of an organisation and how they are delivered and viewed within organizations and by different stakeholders? What tools, such as company guidelines and codes of ethics, can businesses employ to aide delivery and upholding of corporate values? How do business embed values into the culture of an organisation and how does that bring about change?  How do corporations and society define leadership and what are our expectations for corporate leadership in the future? What is the role of leadership in corporate business and culture? What responsibility do corporate leaders feel they have in minimizing societal issues such as poverty and environmental damage? Does this fit with how stakeholders from employees to boards, to customers view the role of business leaders? How much of a leadership role does business education have in shaping future corporate leaders? How should business education adapt to support a different kind of leadership for the future?

How can businesses make corporate governance fit for purpose?

Corporate governance is conventionally considered in a principal-agent framework of aligning the interests of directors with shareholders. Less consideration is given to the role of corporate governance in promoting and delivering corporate purpose – but what can we learn from experience about this relation? What does corporate purpose imply about the appropriate structure and composition of corporate boards and the way in which board committees operate?  How do companies ensure that corporate purpose is embedded in their businesses? Does employee representation enhance or undermine business success?  What models of employee representation have been most effective?  Are they better suited to some types of corporate activities than others?  How should employee representation be promoted in the corporate sector?  How can the functioning of boards and board committees be improved?  How can they be better aligned with corporate purpose and values, and how do they ensure that these are embedded throughout their organizations?

How should businesses adapt to changing technology and scientific opportunities and how will these affect the future of the corporation?

What are the implications of the growth of intangible assets for the structure and operation of corporations?  As the boundaries of the firm change, how should firms respond to this and will large corporations persist in their current form in the face of new technologies? As our planet changes and acclimatises to new technologies, what is the future of the corporation in a resource constrained world, and are corporates harnessing new ideas and development to be responsive to the changing environment?  What are the prospects for employment in the face of new technologies?  How will work patterns need to change in the future?  Looking at future changes, what can we learn from past technological revolutions about how new forms of employment emerge and how society and business adapted to them? What role does government have in reskilling and training the labour force? What have archaeological explorations and history shown us about how businesses have adapted to changing technologies through the ages?

How can we modernise corporate law, regulation, and taxation to adapt to a changing global landscape, and what role do governments play in this?

Business is often characterised as implacably resistant to regulation, but many businesses view good regulation as essential to providing a level playing field. How do regulation and corporate law, for example limited liability, affect the ability of businesses to reform their corporate purpose and operations? What reforms are needed to corporate law?  Can governments act as agents for change by creating the framework for new sector-wide practices, such as adapting the emphasis on shareholder interests? Are there different models of corporate law that can be adopted and should corporate purpose be more explicitly incorporated in them? Is there an excessive reliance on regulation to correct corporate failures and can regulation and taxation be better designed to align corporations with public and social purposes?  Given the multiplicity of regulation and the patchwork of international requirements that businesses must deal with, how might regulation and taxation be made better suited to global corporations?  How can modernising corporate law, regulation and tax contribute to rewriting the contract between society and business?

How can businesses promote long-term investment? What can corporations do to harness and promote research and development?

Fundamental scientific advances are being made in everything from automobiles to energy, from food to pharmaceuticals as well as in artificial intelligence, information, and communications.  They are enhancing the potential for corporations to make profound contributions to enhancing human welfare around the world.  What more can corporates be doing to ensure that they contribute to research and development across their areas to ensure products and systems are for the benefit of wider society? Should corporations be entirely responsible for research and development expenditure within their sector or should they be coordinated in national and industrial strategies? As short-termism is increasingly regarded as a fundamental deficiency of our capitalist systems, how can research and development help steer corporations towards long-term investment? Short-term investment is associated with excessive discounting of long-term earnings but how much evidence is there of it and what can be done about it? To what extent are some financial systems better at supporting long-term investment than others?  Is the problem predominantly a small or large company phenomenon? What can the history of technological advancement tell us about how businesses can benefit and adapt to the potential of research and development investment?

What impact does ownership have on building sustainable and responsible businesses?

What constitutes a responsible and ethical approach to business?  Financial institutions are thought to lie at the heart of the failure of the financial system to promote responsible business but ownership of companies differs appreciably across the world, and some countries appear to be more affected by inadequate investor engagement than others.  Is this correct?  Should more engaged long-term investment by institutions be encouraged?  What can be done to encourage this?  What is the evidence on the way in which institutional investors engage with their corporate investments and what can be learnt from cases of success and failure?  Are other forms of ownership, for example, families and foundations, likely to be more successful at building sustainable and ethical businesses? What are the benefits of mixed-ownership models such as family-owned or social enterprises to the corporate sector and what does history tell us about the impact of mixed-model businesses on economies across the world? How do the variety of ownership forms relate to sustainable business and does this matter?

What role do businesses have in engaging with civil society?

The relationship between corporations and civil society has often been characterised as being primarily antagonistic, but are businesses recognising and welcoming the role that NGOs and social enterprises can play in alerting them to the fault-lines between companies and society that may impact on them in the future? What role do NGOs and social enterprises play in promoting the concept of social innovation and ethical, sustainable trading? Are certain types and sizes of businesses more easily held to account by society? How does the type of business affect its relationship with the community it operates within and how can businesses learn from each other? Is there a link between expert and public responsibility? How do business structures, governance and leadership relate to safeguarding and protecting wider societal commitments? And how, in light of emerging, new collective social values across the world, might businesses adapt their role in civil society?


This landscape review will be published in Autumn 2018. 

For further information please contact the Project Manager on 


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