The Role of the Corporation in Society: An Alternative View and Opportunities for Future Research
Executive Summary — Neoclassical economics and several management theories assert that the corporation's sole objective is maximizing shareholder wealth. Despite these theoretical approaches, however, actual corporate conduct in some cases is inconsistent with shareholder value maximization as the sole objective of the corporation. In fact, corporations are now engaging in environmental and social causes with multiple stakeholders in mind and this is especially true for the world's largest corporations. Overall, the author presents an alternative view of the role of the corporation in society where the objective of the corporation is a function of its size. Specifically, the largest corporations are forced to balance different stakeholders' interests instead of simply maximizing shareholder wealth. The author attributes this change in the role of the corporation to the increasing concentration of economic activity and power in a few corporations which has resulted in 1) a few companies having a very large impact on society, 2) corporations and influential actors which are easier to locate, and 3) increasing separation of ownership and control. These events have led to what scholars Berle and Means (1932) predicted more than 80 years ago: both owners and "the control" accepting public interest as the objective of the corporation. Further research on the topics outlined in this paper may increase our understanding of corporate behavior and the role of these corporations in society. Key concepts include:
- The role of the corporation in society can be a function of the broader economic, social, and political context and as a result evolves over time.
- Corporations are not a homogeneous group as it is assumed by profit maximization theories. Not all corporations have the same role in society.
- Increasing corporate engagement on environmental and social goals has redefined the relation between business and society. It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue.
A long-standing ideology in business education has been that a corporation is run for the sole interest of its shareholders. I present an alternative view where increasing concentration of economic activity and power in the world's largest corporations, the Global 1000, has opened the way for managers to consider the interests of a broader set of stakeholders rather than only shareholders. Having documented that this alternative view better fits actual corporate conduct, I discuss opportunities for future research. Specifically, I call for research on the materiality of environmental and social issues for the future financial performance of corporations, the design of incentive and control systems to guide strategy execution, corporate reporting, and the role of investors in this new paradigm.