Year of the Humanities Profile: Business Profits from Humane Strategies

Issue Date: 
January 19, 2016

When John Camillus consults with corporations about business strategy, he never tells them that being socially responsible is simply the right thing to do.

“That would never fly. They would think I was a goody two-shoes,” said Camillus, the Donald R. Beall Professor of Strategic Management at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.

John Camillus (Photo by Emily O'Donnell)But he’s no Pollyanna. Camillus makes it clear that there is tangible economic advantage in embracing social responsibility. In his consulting with Fortune 500s as well as many other companies, he tells business leaders that incorporating human values results in more profits in the long run, and possibly even in the short run.

For Camillus, the very soul of business is intertwined with the humanities. With Professor Bopaya Bidanda of the Swanson School of Engineering, he founded the Business of Humanity® Project, which seeks to develop economic and strategic models informed by the criterion of “humanity.” The project develops case studies, organizes conferences, and offers graduate courses here and abroad, and has initiated projects to demonstrate the importance of humanity—employing humane strategic criteria and serving humankind in business decisions.

“People’s values are critically important to corporations,” he said. “The difference between Costco and Enron is extraordinarily telling. Values drive strategic decisions. Moreover, understanding human motivations and behavior is at the core of business functions such as marketing and management control.”  

As Pitt celebrates this academic year as the Year of the Humanities in the University, it’s useful to see how people from diverse fields draw from the humanities in their work. Camillus serves on the steering committee for this year’s celebration of the humanities at Pitt. Joining him are faculty in diverse areas such as pharmacy, law, engineering, physics, and political science, as well as colleagues from English literature, music, and other humanities departments.

Camillus also teaches a course called “The Business of Humanity®.” Lest some business people roll their eyes at the touchy-feely title, he added the course subtitle: “Strategic Management in the Era of Globalization, Innovation and Shared Value.”

He cites as a case study Arvind Ltd., a textile manufacturer in India that has long embraced community values. Camillus said Arvind responded to the increasing incidence of farmers committing suicide because their crops failed and they could not pay their debts. The textile company helped farmers start growing organic cotton, which did not need expensive pesticides and herbicides to thrive. “They hired more than a hundred agronomists to work with farmers,” Camillus said. “They eliminated middlemen who preyed on the farmers.” 

“The farmers are much better off. The environment is better off because the soil is not harmed by pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Arvind is better off as a profitable, globally respected producer of organic cotton denim. Arvind’s is a values-driven strategy that demonstrates that the Business of Humanity® works.”

Camillus said values-driven business decisions should consider every segment of society. “The world is not only people who buy Bentleys and Jimmy Choo. It is also billions of people who live on $2 a day.”

Awareness of the human condition was impossible to overlook in India, Camillus said. The disparity between the affluent and destitute was painfully evident to him growing up in Chennai, India. He attended the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, where he studied mechanical engineering. He then received a postgraduate diploma in management at the elite Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad. Admittance to both institutes was highly selective. Upper middle-class students such as Camillus who could afford the best high school and preparation classes had an immense advantage in getting in, he said. “There are scholarships available, based on means, but getting into these schools is not really possible for the hundreds of millions in India who cannot afford a good primary and secondary education.” 

After graduating from IIM, Camillus moved to the United States and earned a doctorate in business administration at Harvard University.

He returned to India, young, ambitious, and eager to help his country. He consulted on strategic planning for clients ranging from the cabinet-level of government to nonprofits to major corporations. His work with nonprofits and government ministries on the challenges of poverty and economic development brought a human face to the issues. 

Even consulting with corporations obliquely raised issues of humanity. As an advisor to top management, it was politic to make travel arrangements that mirrored the style of the CEO. “I would stay in the very best hotels and take chauffeur-driven cars. Then I would see people living on the sidewalk, going hungry, whose monthly income was less than what I spent on lunch. It was obviously not right for human beings to live in luxury next to such suffering without trying to do something to improve the situation.”

Camillus returned to the States as a visiting faculty member at Pitt in 1977 and has never looked back. Beyond the attractions of the academic climate and opportunities at Pitt, the government-declared “emergency” in India in the late ’70s, which abrogated civil rights, made staying in the U.S. incredibly appealing.  

He has won the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching and Distinguished Public Service Awards. In 2015, he received the inaugural Diversity and Global Leadership Award at the Katz School. 

Business schools and universities have a role in producing knowledge and advocating that businesses and the individuals who run them pay more attention to how they can better serve mankind, said Camillus. “Business is a fundamentally human institution,” he noted. “Being human and understanding humans are at the heart of what business does.”