Investigating the relationship between business and society

The Future of the Corporation programme was initiated by the British Academy to deliver two outputs: to produce, gather and present research on the relationship between business and society; and to engage a broad community of people, particularly business leaders, policymakers and academics, to discuss the findings and contribute to this thinking.  The programme has produced two rounds of research.  In 2018, a landscape review drew on a broad range of disciplines and topics to build a picture of the developments around the relationship between business and society.  In 2019, based on the previous round of research, further evidence was gathered around purposeful business, including the findings of extensive discussions with the community.  An overview of the methodologies, topics, people involved and links to the research are presented below.

2018 research: landscape review

During 2018, the British Academy convened academics, experts and business leaders to discuss the Future of the Corporation. They came together in 11 topical briefings involving around 350 people, seven meetings of our 25-strong corporate advisory group, numerous individual meetings and 13 research groups featuring 32 academics from around the world who spent ten months researching the core themes.

Our November 2018 report, Reforming business for the 21st century, synthesised the case for change and the vision of trustworthy, purposeful businesses with ethical cultures. Below is a list of the research papers published in 2018. All are openly accessible, with 12 available through the Journal of the British Academy:

Paper 1 Davoudi, L., McKenna, C. and Olegario, R. (2018), The Historical Role of the Corporation in Society, Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 2 Hsieh, N., Meyer, M., Rodin, D. and Van’t Klooster, J. (2018), The Social Purpose of Corporations: A Literature Review and Research Agenda, Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 3 Kirby, N., Kirton, A., Crean, A. (2018), Do Corporations have a duty to be trustworthy? Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 4 Crean, A., Gold, N., Vines, D., Williamson, A. (2018), Restoring trustworthiness in the financial system: Norms, behaviour and governance, Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 5 Hsieh, N., Lange, B., Rodin, D., Wolf-Bauwens M. L. A. (2018), Getting Clear on Corporate Culture, Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 6 Gordon, J. (2018), Is Corporate Governance a First Order Cause of the Current Malaise? Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 7 Hamdani, A., Kandel, E., Hashai, N., Yafeh, Y. (2018), Technological Progress and the Future of the Corporation, Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 8 Birkinshaw, J. (2018), How is Technological Change Affecting the Nature of the Corporation? Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 9 Desai, M., Dharmapala, D. (2018), Revisiting the Uneasy Case for Corporate Taxation in an Uneasy World, Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 10 Armour, J., Enriques, L., Ezrachi, A., Vella, A. (2018), Regulation and Law: The Role of Corporate, Competition and Tax Law, Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 11 Offer, A. (2018), Patient and impatient capital: time horizons as market boundaries, Oxford Economic and Social History Working Papers 165, University of Oxford, Department of Economics.

Paper 12 Villalonga, B. (2018), The Impact of Ownership on Building Sustainable and Responsible Business, Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

Paper 13 Buckley, P. (2018), Can Corporations Contribute Directly to Society or only through Regulated Behaviour? Journal of the British Academy, 6(s1)

This provided a starting point for a set of principles developed during 2019 which were developed through a follow-on process of research and engagement.

Restoring trustworthiness in the financial system: Norms, behaviour and governance

2019 research: purposeful business

Following the publication of our November 2018 report, Reforming business for the 21st century, the British Academy set out to develop a basis for a framework that would support the increasing interest in and commitment to purpose as a basis for the concept of the corporation. The notion of purpose emerged as a cross-cutting feature of the 2018 research. It was highlighted in the aforementioned report, alongside trustworthiness, and ethical cultures as crucial to enabling business to meet society’s changing expectations.

From February to November 2019, the Academy developed and extensively reviewed a set of proposals to provide a basis for business to organise itself in line with this framework. The conclusion of this work is a set of principles published in Principles for purposeful business, which summarises the eight principles and a series of pathways to deliver change.

The process involved four evidence generation and synthesis components: convening of a Deliberation Group; commissioning of evidence syntheses; generating new ideas and insight through a series of deliberative roundtables; and a final analysis to generate the principles and proposals. The final analysis was also consulted on by reconvening those who attended the earlier roundtables and further iterations were then made in response to feedback. Each part of the process is described in turn below.

2019 Working papers: evidence synthesis

Paper 1 Palombo, D. (2019), ‘The Future of the Corporation: The Avenues for Legal Change’, Future of the Corporation Working Paper

Paper 2 Kustin, B., Chan, J. and Johnstone-Louis, M. (2019), ‘The Future of Corporate Ownership and Governance’, Future of the Corporation Working Paper

Paper 3 Stroehle, J. C., Soonawalla, K., Metzner, M. (2019), ‘How to Measure Performance in a Purposeful Company?’, Future of the Corporation Working Paper

Paper 4 Mann, H., Pitt-Watson, D. (2019), ‘The Purposeful Corporation, and the Role of the Finance Industry’, Future of the Corporation Working Paper

Deliberation Group

The deliberation group was formed for the purpose of examining evidence, illustrations and innovations to support the synthesis of findings presented in this report. Members acted in an individual and advisory capacity and were not representatives of any institution. The views presented in this report are not necessarily those of each member.


Vimla Appadoo, Service Designer, Young Digital Leader 2018
Professor John Armour FBA, Professor of Law and Finance, Oxford University
Clara Barby, Partner, Bridges Fund Management
Sharon Darcy, Director, Sustainability First
Luke Fletcher, Partner, Bates Wells Braithwaite
Professor Colin Mayer FBA (Chair), Academic Lead of the Future of the Corporation Programme, Professor of Management Studies at the Saïd Business School
Dr Molly Morgan Jones, Director of Policy, the British Academy
Peter Norris, Chairman, Virgin Group
Professor Jill Rubery FBA, Professor of Comparative Employment Systems, Director at Association Manchester Business School


Roundtables brought together around 200 people in small groups to debate the proposals and give input in terms of evidence, examples and experience. 15 roundtables were held between June and October 2019:

  • Law and Regulation (2)
  • Ownership and Governance (2)
  • Measurement and Performance (2)
  • Finance and Investment (4)
  • Purpose and Human Rights (1)
  • Final analysis and synthesis roundtables (2)
  • Edinburgh (1)
  • New York (1)

Further research

The Future of the Corporation programme has identified multiple avenues for further research. Many of the 2018 research papers specified areas where further research is required. The principles presented in the 2019 report also provide extensive opportunities for further development. During 2020, the programme will focus primarily on engaging a public audience in the debate on purposeful business and developing new partnerships to take this research agenda forward. We are happy to speak to academics and others who are interested in furthering the research agenda to guide this where possible.

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