What Is The Meaning Of Business?

By Edward D. Hess,
Adjunct Professor of Organization and Management, and
Executive Director – Center for Entrepreneurship and Corporate Growth,

Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia



It is late August, 4:30 a.m. Rocky Mountain Time as I sit at my desk in the beautiful Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado to pen this perspective. My vacation has been a time of reflection and productivity as I have finished the 2nd draft of my next book “The Family Business: Managing Dynamic Perspectives” as well as thought about the past year of teaching, research, writing, and consulting.

And I decided to share with you a question I have been pondering for some time because I think it is important and because some of you will share your thoughts with me via e-mail.

The business world has been rocked by financial and accounting excesses and the bubble of the 90s has just begun to be rationalized in some industries. Faith in business leaders is low; and faith in the integrity of our financial system has been questioned. Our entire financial system of checks and balances – regulatory, auditing, legal and investment banking failed the public in some way.

With this background – here is the question which I have been pondering:

Many professions or occupations have defined themselves as having or serving a higher purpose, such as:

  • Scientists seek knowledge and truth;
  • The clergy seek to heal and teach;
  • Doctors and nurses seek to heal the sick;
  • Lawyers seek justice;
  • Police and fire safety personnel seek to protect;
  • Military personnel seek to defend our way of life; and
  • Counselors and psychiatrists seek to help others.

So what do we as business people seek to do which furthers a noble deed, ideal, or goal?




When I ask business people these questions, the common answers are:

  1. Business seeks to serve customers;
  2. Business creates jobs;
  3. Business is how we make money to pay the rent; and
  4. Business seeks to produce a quality product.

All of these answers are true, but are they sufficient? Tell me why what business does is important in a fundamental values way – in furthering a higher purpose or goal or in giving meaning to people’s lives.

Some would argue that business is the means of organizing commercial interactions amongst people and that it is through business that people have the opportunity to do meaningful work. Yet skeptics or critics of the business world may argue that we serve no purpose other than fulfilling human greed. By now – you are asking – why does this really matter? What difference does it make?

I think that we must answer this question in a convincing enough way to:

  1. Regain the trust of the investing public;
  2. Motivate and impassion the employees in our businesses;
  3. Proactively focus on business leadership and integrity daily.

We, the business people, need to be able to explain to other people why what we do is important and meaningful.

MONEY IS NOT ENOUGH. Business must stand for more than making money. Business must be more than legalized greed.

Now it is your time:

“I believe the higher purpose of business is to

“Being a business person is an honorable profession because

Send me your answers.

Maybe, by trying to answer these questions, you will focus more on your employees and your duty to them. Are you creating an environment in which they can find meaning and can excel? Does that meaning contribute to business operational or execution excellence?

Maybe – just maybe – by focusing on this issue, you will question whether:

  1. The ends justify the means; and whether,
  2. The sole purpose of business is to meet customers’ needs.

Is this important? I think so. Read the recently released NASA Columbia Disaster Report and the Worldcom Report, for two current instances of where organizational cultures and values failed. I believe that good business values contribute to better employee performance, better employee morale, and better operational excellence.