What philosophers can do for businesses

The role of a ‘Chief Philosophy Officer’ in business can help to pose the question of the morality of decisions made by corporate boards and act as a catalyst for ‘good’ leadership, according to Christian Voegtlin and Carine Girard-Guerraud

The pandemic has thrown up fundamental political, ethical and existential questions for our world. As old and new challenges confront businesses, traditional contemporary management thinking, with its focus on economics and psychology, is no longer providing all the answers. Philosophy, an overlooked tool in the world of business, is set to take a greater role to help leaders navigate the challenges facing them. 

In-house philosophers, sometimes called Chief Philosophy Officers (CPOs), started to appear in some Sillicon Valley companies a couple of years ago. CPOs are a mix of life-coach, consultant and strategist, helping the CEO and other staff to tackle fundamental questions such as ‘what is a good and virtuous way of doing business’, ‘how can I be a good boss’ and ‘what should the purpose of my business be’. 

These questions can be particularly relevant in an environment where digital technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms are involved. However, the question remains: what would be the added value of a CPO, what exactly are his/her roles and responsibilities in influencing the way these technologies are used, and how do they fit into an increasingly systemic governance of companies?

A Moral compass

Philosophers can help with questions about what ethics might be at stake and what standards should apply when programming virtual intelligence, and in particular, when designing how AI should interact with humans. Take for instance the use of algorithms by platforms such as YouTube, where viewers are enticed to watch more videos, which, studies show, leads them to content that becomes ever more divisive, sensational and therefore addictive the longer they watched. Should these algorithms be programmed with the sole purpose of maximising user time on the platform, no matter where the suggestions take the user? Having a CPO could help develop guidelines that would lead to more ethical programming, which in turn could emphasise the importance of democratic values and balanced debate.

Meaning and mediation

The idea behind the Chief Philosophy Officer is appealing and the position could be helpful in a business environment that is becoming exponentially more complex. Philosophy can provide purpose and guidance by addressing fundamental questions about meaning, and can be a useful tool for examining how we want to live together and treat others. CPOs can be helpful as mediators, helping overburdened managers or entrepreneurs to step back from the daily grind and put see the bigger picture. 

Innovation

The CPO can also guide innovative startups in evaluating business goals. In a world that is facing big sustainability challenges, as recently outlined by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, innovation should ideally contribute to a sustainable future. The CPO’s role here would be to direct a business toward innovation that combines moral purpose with profitability. Moreover, philosophical thinking can assist technological innovators in defining the boundaries of their innovations, from privacy rights issues to virtual intelligence humanistic values.

Leadership and performance

When it comes to leadership, we all know examples of where things went terribly wrong, and in such instances it would be helpful to have someone in place to provide guidance with regard to what the purpose of leadership should be. The CPO can play a role in advising top management and influence corporate governance. These days, it is not enough for CEOs and top management to simply validate a strategy, they are expected to actively contribute to it. CPOs can help question the moral impact of business decisions and strategies. They can, for instance, alert the company to the potential risk of using data in new and increasingly sophisticated predictive models or accounting methods where there is an environmental impact. 

Philosophy offers awareness of the limits of what we can know and what we can realistically achieve, as well as interpreting knowledge. CPOs can also help to question the performance of models and methods in order to avoid any pitfalls, such as being seen to be ‘greenwashing’ with regard to environmental and societal issues. Finally, because of this new era we are living in, the so-called ‘anthropocene’, where human activity weighs heavily on the earth’s activity, leaders are faced with tough decisions, and some philosophical reflection facilitated by a qualified philosopher might be helpful for board members to better understand the impact of their decisions.

Challenges

Employing philosophers is a new and emerging phenomenon, still in its infancy. It will most likely be received with mixed feelings and cause some controversy. Initially, CPOs will most likely face similar challenges to those that confronted corporate social responsibility managers when they first become part of the corporate landscape. They will have to make their voices heard in an environment that is still primarily driven by profits, and prove the worth and legitimacy of their position within the organisation. Moreover, they face the challenge of translating often abstract philosophical thoughts into real world actions. This has always been a challenge for philosophers. 

We think it would be a good idea to expose our future managers and directors to philosophical thinking during their training in our business schools. This would enhance the potential for self-inquiry, logical reasoning and critical thinking in our future business leaders and could give them a sense of purpose and direction at a stage when their identity is not yet fully formed, rather than having someone serve as their conscience and guide them to what is right further down the line. Moreover, we believe that beyond the independence and responsibility of directors, the CPO can help to pose the question of the morality of decisions made by corporate boards and act as a catalyst for ‘good’ leadership.  

Christian Voegtlin is Professor of Managerial Responsibility at Audencia Business School. He received his Habilitation and his PhD in Business Administration from the University of Zurich.In his research, he focuses on the responsibility of leaders in business organisations, what that means in today’s times and what the drivers and positive implications of responsible leadership are. 

He is also interested in how the innovation process can be governed to avoid harmful consequences and facilitate innovations that address sustainable development challenges. Finally, he explores the potential of neuroscience research for business ethics, focusing specifically on the role of steroid hormones in human behaviour. Christian is a former section editor of the Journal of Business Ethics and currently serves as associate editor for Business & Society

Carine Girard-Guerraud is a professor at Audencia Business School and has 20 years of experience in finance and corporate governance. She teaches financial engineering, corporate governance and fintech in initial and executive education programmes. Her research domains include shareholder activism and engagement; financial innovation (in particular, equity-crowdfunding); bankruptcy and corporate governance of private and public firms.

She is currently coordinating research projects on “the financing of spin-offs and deeptech start-ups” (with the Region Pays de la Loire) and on ownership structure in French firms with purpose “Sociétés à Mission” (with the French National Research Agency, ANR).

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