How long is the long-term?

By Ed Houghton, Research Adviser

As animals we just aren’t wired to think long-term. That might sound at first a grand statement, but consider research we’re completing which explores the principles HR professionals and their functional counterparts apply when making decisions. Whilst we say we are aware of the long-term and consider the future, our actions speak louder and say something very different.

In new research, we surveyed 10,000 business professionals across the UK, Middle East, Asia, and the US to see which principles inform how we make decisions. And our findings are staggering when we consider the way long-term decisions are made. Whilst we want to think long term we are less likely to consider long-term implications when faced with difficult scenarios. In fact we default to other principles to help us make decisions (such as fairness and merit) over the idea of thinking long-term (we call this handing-down). And yet, when we are asked which principles are the “right thing to do” in business, it is handing down which time and time again comes out near top. We have the best of intentions to think long-term, but something is preventing us from living the long-term-principle we say is so important. So what’s going on? 


Part of this issue is how we define long-term. Depending on your context, your sector, and your understanding of your business, you will have very different views of the definitions of long-term and short-term. And importantly, it is who your organisation creates value for (your stakeholders) which defines your business’ perspective on short-term versus long-term.

Organisations in the near-past have been focused firmly on the creation of value over the short-term for investors (recent crises in the financial services illustrate this perfectly), and yet to create long-term value vital business processes such as innovation and customer value need much longer to bear fruit. It takes a leap of faith (or a well calculated decision) to step out of the comfort of short term returns to innovate and realise the value of long-term thinking. The question of “who are our stakeholders?” then is one which organisations need to seriously consider if they are to understand their business’ long-term view. No conversations about the business model of the business, and how it creates value in the long-term can be had without factoring in one of the most significant stakeholders of organisations: their people.

Putting people firmly within the stakeholder map of the organisation does a number of things with regard to long-term thinking. It firmly recognises people and their knowledge as an asset the organisation can draw on to create value. It gives people a valid position of voice and authority when it comes to driving business performance by recognising ownership of roles and tasks, and perhaps most importantly, it positions employees alongside investor/owners, customers and wider society as true beneficiaries of success. The result of this is that through considering employees, HR and business leaders become aware of the other voices around the table that inform and drive the business forward. Employees, who by virtue of the fact they are employed, are more keenly aware of the need for long-term sustainable success (they are after all are the people who often lose out the most should a business fail) and are therefore invested themselves in securing a sustainable future.

If we’re to move beyond short term thinking we need an empowered and engaged workforce which is driving performance through the organisations business model. HR is uniquely placed to realise this over the long-term, and it’s now time that HR professionals step in to the position businesses need them to be in so they can champion the role of employees as valid long-term stakeholders of our organisations.

This is part of a series of blogs on Profession for the Future. To get involved in the debate use #changingHR on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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  • Anonymous

    This is so true. Nothing but engaged people in an organisation will ensure long term future. The companies will need to focus on their people for their development so that growth and progression over a longer period is ensured.