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Rice University research looks into corporate responsibility for compassion

Can corporations be compassionate? Rice University researchers are figuring that out. Pexels

Since the early 2000s, the business of doing business has changed its looks markedly. As corporations gain power and reach, many in the public are subjecting them to increasingly insistent questions about their impact on the lives of workers, the environment and society at large.

At the same time, academics have focused more attention on compassion in management and business organizations. Today, considerable research parses the way corporate conduct affects employees, laid-off workers and the well-being of society as a whole. A considerable segment of this academic literature advocates for what once seemed like an oxymoron: compassion in corporate management.

Most of the recent research on compassion focuses on individuals and the group. Most management research, meanwhile, centers on economic performance and efficiency. In an editorial for Journal of Management, though, Rice Business Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of ManagementJennifer George argues that compassion research can actually be a jumping-off point for focus on social problems, well-being and identifying the conditions under which organizations do the least harm.

But what is compassion in business, exactly? According to George, it's the practice of setting up organizations so that they respond to the vulnerable groups in their orbit. To do this, George says, companies should reconsider the concept of "American Corporate Capitalism (ACC)," which operates when corporations, workers and consumers pursue self-interest. ACC follows the laws of supply and demand, and is founded on the bedrock principles of respect for private property, an emphasis on economic growth and using profits as the measuring stick for making business decision.

Make no mistake, George adds: "ACC is an ideology." A host of institutions provide the underpinnings that allow ACC to flourish, among them the legal system, governmental agencies, stock markets, media and advertising and trade organizations.

But, notes George, the rewards from American Corporate Capitalism are narrowing sharply. ACC, she contends, now concentrates benefits upon fewer and fewer people. One article she cites suggests that outsized CEO salaries and compensation, coupled with large income inequality within a company, may result in organizations that do harm to their workers.

In fact, "the tenets of ACC seem to downplay the importance of compassionate organizing," says George. Harm done by corporations, such as laying off employees, may occur unintentionally, but those decisions still cause suffering. ACC, she says, "has the potential to create conditions under which compassion is much less likely to occur."

As a result, it's crucial to closely examine the tensions and contradictions between ACC and compassion. A focus on compassion would "identify the conditions under which organizations inflict the least harm and alleviate the most suffering," George writes.

She proposes a wide-ranging agenda to achieve this. First, researchers should look at organizational decision-making to track the influence of ACC values and whether criteria such as dominance or hierarchy override harmony and egalitarianism. Identifying the factors that spur organizations to favor only shareholders and customers over employees and neighboring communities could offer insights for management. Other research, George suggests, ought to examine a range of companies operating in the same sector, tracing which cause more damage and which are more successful at reducing suffering.

Finally, George says, academics should develop case studies of organizations that successfully pursue policies such as employing the disabled – policies designed to promote the well-being of vulnerable groups inside and outside the company.

Because corporations wield such vast influence, the harm they do can reach wide swaths of the population. It's time, George writes, for researchers to examine the disconnects between prevailing corporate culture and compassion. Effectively done, she says, such research could vault over the ivory battlements into the heart of everyday life.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom in 2019.

Based on research from Jennifer M. George, the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of Management in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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