People sat in rooms, telling stories

I spent much of last week down at Dartington Hall on a School for Social Entrepreneurs residential, visiting various interesting social and educational projects in Devon and Cornwall. It was an incredibly inspiring time for me, and has also triggered some follow-up thoughts to my recent comments on business and organisations.

Being with a group of 80 people all intent on making the world better through business is quite a rarified atmosphere, and certainly very energising and inspiring. However, in the context of my recent discussions with Anthony, I'm always cautious about organisations created for "higher purposes" - lest people should be trampled on the way to paradise. I read a blog post recently (apologies, can't find the link currently) which said "social enterprises work best when the employees are the beneficiaries." So it's been very encouraging to spend time with social entrepreneurs and observe how effectively they manage live by the principles they espouse.

One place that really stood out for me was the wonderful, beautiful Schumacher College for sustainable living, certainly one of the most gently powerful environments I've ever been in. The college was inspired by the work of the economist EF Schumacher, of "Small is Beautiful" fame, in whose obituary I came across this marvellous quote from him about dealing with large corporations:

"I never deal with corporations; I only deal with people."

The college works on these same principles, centering the learning on the individuals and their experiences rather than an abstracted system of curriculums and knowledge transfer. When people leave the college, all their knowledge leaves with them, because the college is simply the sum of the people associated with it. And all this got me thinking: what else is there to a corporation apart from the people who comprise it?

As I write this, my girlfriend is mid-way through a deeply unhelpful phonecall to Vodaphone. "Why can't people treat each other like human beings instead of systems," she just asked me? This seems to be an increasingly prevelant symptom of the modern organisation: it takes on a life of its own that makes people act in unsociable, inhuman ways towards each other. The story of the organisation ends up being more powerful than the humanity of the people who create it.

As part of my travels last week, I was very fortunate to meet Tim Smit of the Eden Project, who shared a lot of his lessons-learned with us. He came out with some classic one-liners which are still rattling around in my brain now (including evangelising about the importance of being "curious as kittens"), but one idea particularly chimed so neatly with my own thoughts that I had to share it here:

"Say good morning to at least 20 people before you start work, because work is basically sociable and you'll learn far more from talking to the people around you than you will from whatever you think is your real work."

On the bus on the way to Eden, I realised a few things about our various social enterprises. A business is a story that inspires people to collaborate, by bringing their own personal objectives together under a shared aim. And the best way to make the story work is to acknowledge this: it's just a story, and the people in the organisation are its authors. By removing the emperor's clothes, stripping away the mythologies of our organisations, we make it much harder to do inhuman things - exploit our staff, neglect our customers, pollute our world - in their names.

This feels like the core issue in any business, social or otherwise: we need to put the humanity, the sociability, back into our businesses. A business, in modern convention, is just a tool for organising money and property, not people. There is no such thing as a "business" in any physical sense: it doesn't really exist.

Businesses are just groups of people, sitting in rooms, telling each other stories. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.