I have been fiddling with the concept of ubuntu since the Nineties, and it intrigues me. A quick search of the web for its application in business leads nowhere as the concept seems to have been hijacked by the Linux operating system, so bear with me as I go with what I think.
The common definition of ubuntu is ‘I am who I am because of who we all are’. This implies that a group defines the character of the individual. Unsurprisingly, the concept gained momentum after the end of apartheid in South Africa, with the arrival of the Rainbow Nation concept: everyone wanted to find a way to belong, and a way to define roles.
The problem with the broader concept is that the disparate elements tend to average things out, producing an average view of ‘who we collectively are’, with various offshoot concepts and dissenters disturbing the uniformity of the hegemony.
It becomes more interesting in business though.
There are two strands to be factored in. The first is the brand as a transforming relationship between a consumer and a product. The second strand is lies in the concept of governance as a behavioural relationship between a corporate entity and its stakeholders.
Both strands imply two sides of an equation. In both cases there is an entity, which has an internalised view of itself. The enterprise that produces products expresses itself through identity, which is interpreted as image by the consumer. The entity that is focussed on governance expresses itself with its corporate philosophy which is (ideally) interpreted as fulfilment of the stakeholder needs and wants.
Ubuntu unifies both sides of the equation, by treating all as part of one group, united by common characteristics and values.
In practice, the best example I can think of is Virgin Air. Some years ago, a recruitment form with a sense of humour circulated for Virgin. The obvious intent was to find staff with a sense of humour and fun. A few years later, Richard Branson defied the concept of gravitas by losing a bet and serving passengers on a competitor airline in a flight attendant’s dress. The obvious thing is that people who choose Virgin are linked to Virgin, if only subliminally, by a sense of humour, mischief and adventure.
The concept of ubuntu works well for a brand, as a brand is a transforming relationship, and people who want to be transformed in one or other way will gravitate to the brand.
It becomes more interesting in the realm of governance, where it can be applied as a governance management tool, a means of assessing and identifying the value of stakeholders and reaching out to them.
Corporate philosophy has a tendency to remain on the wall. Stakeholders are supposedly reassured by it, but they are uninvolved in it. And because the staff are an internal resource, they do not easily interact or interface with the external stakeholders. By applying uniform and selective measures to both staff and key stakeholders, ubuntu can unite the internal and external aspects of the entity’s values.
What this implies is that stakeholders have to be stratified into two levels: those who are concerned with the bottom line elements of compliance, and those who can materially influence the wider environment and acceptance of the entity through their association with the values in the ubuntu.
For instance if the values centre on innovation, then the ubuntu would entail outreach to and incorporation of those stakeholders most likely to associate themselves with and be involved in innovation. This association would also filter out many stakeholders who might attempt to lay claim to the entity, but have a lesser relevance.
Naturally, the entity under discussion would need to project its value of innovation, and ensure that it is internally aligned to innovation.
The benefit of a managed ubuntu is obviously a greater degree of focus through shared values and characteristics. However the process has to be consciously understood and managed.