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. The programme has used an iterative, cumulative methodology where each step has built on the last, responding to policy and practice developments and drawing on the work of others. Reports from each phase include more detailed descriptions of the respective methodologies at that stage. 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.

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 (2019)

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

2019 Roundtables

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)

2020-2021 purpose summits and policy labs

In 2020, the British Academy set up a collaborative policy research process (policy labs) engaging over 100 stakeholders across different sectors, exploring options for policy and practice proposals in the UK. It also launched extensive global and public debates in a series of high-profile Purpose Summits involving business leaders, investors, civil society leaders, politicians, regulators and academics in discussions about the findings of the programme. An outline of the Purpose Summits is listed below:

September 2021: Purposeful Business in Policy, Practice and Business Education: Purpose Summit and Report Launch

  • Launch of Policy and Practice for Purposeful Business
  • How can the professions integrate purposeful business into qualifications and practice?
  • How can universities integrate purposeful business into teaching and the student experience?
  • How can the tech sector apply purposeful business?
  • How can business schools integrate purposeful business into teaching and research?

February 2021: Purpose Summit Series: Purposeful Business for an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy

  • Why we need government leadership to promote purposeful business
  • How government can promote purposeful business through law, regulation and standards
  • How government can support business to become purposeful through partnerships and skills

June 2020: Purpose Summit Series: Purposeful Business in Times of Crisis

  • How is business adopting purpose around the world?
  • What is the role of stakeholders in purposeful business?
  • How can technological change serve society through purposeful business?
  • How can investors and owners support purposeful business?
  • What can we learn from crises, past and present, in solving the problems of people and planet?

This phase of debates and stakeholder engagement was accompanied by the assembling of examples of policies and practices that illustrate aspects of the proposals.

In all, the distinctive approach of this programme has been to provide a comprehensive analysis of the role of business in contemporary society. Instead of examining individual parts of the system, which others have done very effectively, this programme has sought to draw on the collective insight of hundreds of experts and existing initiatives as well as new research to identify the policies and practices required to bring about reform.

2021 Research

The concluding phase of the programme included the additional publication in a Special Edition of the Journal of the British Academy of five research papers as well as an editorial article from Professor Colin Mayer. Three of these were part of the 2019 research round and two additionally brought together other elements of the research underpinning the final report. These are listed below:

The research background to the final report of the Future of the Corporation programme on ‘Policy & Practice for Purposeful Business, Colin Mayer, Journal of the British Academy, volume 10, supplementary issue 5, pp. 1-15, posted 26 August 2022

Findings of the Future of the Corporation ‘Purpose Labs’, Jocelyn Bailey, Lilian Barratt, Molly Morgan Jones and Henry Richards, Journal of the British Academy, volume 10, supplementary issue 5, pp. 17-41, posted 26 August 2022

The Future of the Corporation: the avenues for legal change, Dalia Palombo, Journal of the British Academy, volume 10, supplementary issue 5, pp. 43-86, posted 26 August 2022

Through the looking glass: tying performance and materiality to corporate purpose, J.C. Stroehle, K. Soonawalla and M. Metzner, Journal of the British Academy, volume 10, supplementary issue 5, pp. 87-123, posted 26 August 2022

The purposeful corporation and the role of the finance industry, David Pitt-Watson and Hari Mann, Journal of the British Academy, volume 10, supplementary issue 5, pp. 125-161, posted 26 August 2022

Principles of purposeful business: illustrative examples, Charles Ebert and Victoria Hurth, Journal of the British Academy, volume 10, supplementary issue 5, pp. 163-207, posted 26 August 2022

Teaching Purposeful Business

Following the conclusion of the policy and practice strand of the Future of the Corporation programme, we invited experts, academics and leading figures from business schools to discuss the question of how teaching of business might change. While the topic was considered over the course of the programme, the additional roundtables convened in 2022 helped to translate those considerations into a set of conclusions which we have published in a briefing paper, entitled, Teaching Purposeful Business in UK Business Schools. Three roundtables were conducted: one in December 2021, one in February 2022 and the final one in March 2022. A feedback workshop reconvening the contributors was held in June 2022.

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