A Book Review

MERCHANTS OF VISION: People Bringing New Purpose and Values to Business by James E. Liebig (Ed.). (Berrett-Koehler, 1994).

Reviewed by Claude Whitmyer. This review originally appeared in The Journal of Management Consulting, Volume 9, No. 2, November 1996.

Moving into the 21st century won’t be easy, but the business pioneers of the last two decades have been paving the way. What they have discovered is an essentially different way of doing business, a kind of “paradigm shift” away from the so-called “modern” industrial ways of doing business to the radically different postmodern, post-industrial attitudes and tools used by the newer, more successful businesses of today.

“Modern” industrial businesses tend to have a clear sense of boundaries but an unclear sense of mission. Mergers and acquisitions have led to the creation of giant, competitive conglomerates with many divisions that create a wide variety of unrelated products and services. Examples include Proctor & Gamble and R.J. Reynolds.

Postmodern businesses, by contrast, are characterized by clear missions and unclear boundaries. This new paradigm encourages the creation of collaborative, transnational corporations that focus on one particular industrial segment, such as Caterpillar, for example, whose corporate mission is to be the global heavy equipment company, or Apple Computers, which has many geographical locations and strategic partnerships with its competitors (such as IBM), while still maintaining its focus on products that apply computer chip technology.

What further differentiates the postmodern from the “modern” business is the emphasis on processes and tools that allow for a more rapid response to changing social and economic environments. Integral to the new way of doing business are collaboration, openness, transformative learning (learning to learn), flat management structures, front-line workers empowered to make decisions in the moment that serve both customer and company, responsiveness to community stakeholders, concern for the environment, and ethical decision making.

What was once a leading edge or fringe idea (depending on your perspective) has now moved to the center of corporate concern. In the last five years we have seen an increasing number of biographical and autobiographical profiles of the people using postmodern methods to build successful businesses. Among the best are Body and Soul, the story of The Body Shop, The Soul of a Business, the story of Tom’s of Maine, and The Republic of Tea: Letters to a Young Zentrepreneur, the story of the creation of The Republic of Tea.

Now comes Merchants of Vision, an anthology of short but sweet biographies of little-known business leaders who are deeply enmeshed in the shift from old- to new-paradigm business practices. This inspiring collection includes 39 profiles of men and women from the U.S., Latin America, Europe, and India who are all adopting practices that are environmentally sensitive and socially equitable while still remembering the bottom line. (Friend, client, and professional associate, Christian Forthomme, was among those profiled.).

The profiles are organized around six themes: enhancing social equity, protecting the environment, enabling human creativity, serving higher purposes, behaving ethically and transforming personally. All are brief but pungent.

The major weakness of this collection is that it includes only seven profiles of people from non-white cultures and only ten profiles of women, which is less than representative of the large numbers of women and non-whites active in this arena. Despite this shortcoming, these profiles give the reader a strong sense of the possible good that enlightened commercial practices can do for people and planet. Addresses and telephone numbers are included with each profile, giving the reader a chance to make personal contact with this fascinating panoply of postmodern business leaders.

CLAUDE WHITMYER is a consultant to organizations, big and small, about meeting, learning, and teaming online. He also provides career guidance to executives and managers who want to master the new workplace requirements or employees and entrepreneurs who want to find more meaningful work. 

Mr. Whitmyer is also the coordinator of the Briarpatch, a worldwide network of businesses that practice right livelihood and simple living. He is co-author of the best-selling book of its kind Running A One-Person Business (Ten Speed Press, 1994, 2nd edition) and editor of and contributor to the anthologies In the Company of Others: Making Community in the Modern World (Tarcher, 1993) and Mindfulness and Meaningful Work: Explorations in Right Livelihood (Parallax Press, 1994).

Copyright © 1996 by Claude Whitmyer. All rights reserved.