What’s the point of organisational purpose?

Consumers and citizens respond to emotional stimuli aligned to their own goals in their life. Smart organisations are confident and root their communication in their organisational purpose. They understand their publics because they listen and create content that resonates, is appropriate and easy to appreciate.

PurposeDoes this ring true for you? This is just one of the 16 areas of change for Public Relations in 2016 cited by Ketchum’s Stephen Waddington @wadds. You can see all of them below or online via SlideShare.

What is the purpose, or intent, of Public Relations and corporate communication in 2016? Is this the year we do things differently, or simply put lipstick on the pig? That’s a whole other blog post…

What’s the point of purpose?
Organisational purpose is a chunky topic. It’s a conversation I have with clients when I start working with them, typically when conducting communication audits.

The phrase itself can be confusing as it implies a cohesive understanding and agreed set of goals. However, the reality is often a jumble of views and ideas of what the purpose, or intent, of the company is.

Let’s look at definitions:

Organisational purpose ‘expresses the company’s fundamental value – the raison d’etre or over-riding reason for existing. It is the end to which the strategy is directed.’ (Ellsworth 2002, p4)

‘Where strategy is concerned with what an organisation wants to achieve, and how that will happen, purpose deals with why the organisation exists in the first place and what ultimately matters in its work.’ (Springett 2004)

A shared sense of purpose

The difference between simply having an organisational purpose and having a shared sense of purpose is that this sense of purpose is shared by all employees working for the organisation – and often beyond this to include external stakeholders.

There’s a difference between having an organisational purpose and a shared sense of purpose.

Phil Jackson, former coach to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls is quoted by Roche and Sadowsky (2005) as saying:

2‘The most effective way to forge a winning team is to call on the players’ need to connect to something larger than themselves. Even for those who don’t consider themselves “spiritual” in a conventional sense, creating a successful team – whether it’s an NBA champion or a record-setting sales force – is essentially a spiritual act. It requires the individuals involved to surrender their self-interest for the greater good so that the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Read more on this topic via this CIPD research: Shared purpose and sustainable organisational performance.

So what are we talking about?

  • Purpose is the why of an organisation.
  • Mission is the what (and for who)

While I’m clarifying phrases we all use a lot, here’s my take on others:

  • Vision is the view of the future – where or what you want to be
  • Values are how you will get there.

Further reading: See my internal communication glossary for lots more definitions.

Your purpose is how you stand out and differentiate yourself from competitors.

When I’m analysing communication strategies, I ask companies for their business strategies. They need to be aligned, and then collectively fed into the purpose of the company. If one piece is missing, communication becomes gappy and vague.

When it comes to purpose, employees may think it’s one thing, and customers another. Is this true for your company?

Challenge: Ask your employees what the purpose or intent of your organisation is. Note the responses and see what the results are. In my experience, you find people following an outdated one/have made up their own/have no idea.

According to the Open University, common purposes include:

  • Profitability – This is the dominant performance measure for commercial western organisations. (Note: public sector organisations use service measures of output related to their cost base. Voluntary-sector may use funding obtained or levels of service provision. Small businesses give equal weighting to cash flow and profitability).
  • Growth – This is an important objective for many organisations. For some organisations (e.g. organisations entering new markets) it is the overriding objective.
  • Shareholder value – As shareholders are the owners of commercial organisations, it is logical that one objective should be to maximise the value of their holdings.
  • Customer satisfaction – The three previous objectives ignore the interests of customers, without which neither commercial nor non-commercial organisations can long survive. The massive increase in competition in many commercial markets, the erosion of monopolies and the shift towards increased consumer power are obliging commercial organisations to give greater weight to customer interests.

Other organisations have objectives relating to operations, innovation and employee satisfaction.

Purpose is not a nice to have, it’s a need to have. It all boils down to whether you as a company, and therefore your employees, know why you exist. Tweet this

What would happen if your company became extinct tomorrow?

Purpose is not a catchy sentence written on a mug somewhere. It should be the thread tying everything together. Tweet this

Questions to ask yourself:

Why does the company exist?

Can every employee state why the company exists?

Has the reason we exist changed? If so, have we adapted and evolved to match our new market/product?

Do we have a 1/5/10 year plan?

Have we communicated the purpose of the company?

Have we communicated the purpose of the company to the right people?

Don’t be an ass
One of the biggest mistakes I see companies make is assumption.

Assumption, or to assume, is to think you know what everyone is doing. As my Dad says: “to assume is to make an ass of you and me.”

Assumption is thinking that every employee knows what’s happening. Specifically, the purpose of your organisation. How could they if you’ve never said what it is?

Companies don’t want to make asses of their workforce, but they act like they do.

What do I mean by this?
Public Relations and corporate communication are management disciplines. The value they create and deliver to organisations is tangible.

BUT if you haven’t communicated your purpose, or even decided what it is, how can you possibly expect employees to know what they’re working towards, what the bigger picture is and why the company exists?

Taking it a step further, how can you expect your customers to know what you stand for and why you’re on the planet if you haven’t invested the time to work it out or communicate it?

More than this, does it actually matter?

My take? If you don’t know why the company exists, expect to become extinct.


Not adapted and evolved your business model as your market has? Don’t expect to continue existing.

Sounds harsh. But only 71 companies remain today from the original 1955 Fortune 500 list. The biggest reason cited is their failure to adapt and evolve. Companies that have filed for bankruptcy include Polaroid, Hostess and Kodak and the number of layoffs from 2000 – Jan 2012: 443,552.

Brian Solis @briansolis calls this Digital Darwinism, which I first blogged about a few years back. You can read more about it via the All Things IC blog. Or see his book What’s the Future of Business?: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences.

I’d love to know your thoughts.

Feel free to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.

Thank you for stopping by, I’ll leave you with Stephen’s presentation as promised,


Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 12 January 2016.

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