The multinational corporation (MNC), often seen as a primary agent of globalization, is taking on a new form, one that is promising for both business and society. From a business perspective, this new kind of enterprise is best understood as "global" rather than "multinational."
The corporation has evolved constantly during its long history. The MNC of the late twentieth century had little in common with the international firms of a hundred years earlier, and those companies were very different from the great trading enterprises of the 1700s. The type of business organization that is now emerging -- the globally integrated enterprise -- marks just as big a leap.
Many parties to the globalization debate mistakenly project into the future a picture of corporations that is unchanged from that of today or yesterday. This happens as often among free-market advocates as it does among people opposed to globalization. But businesses are changing in fundamental ways -- structurally, operationally, culturally -- in response to the imperatives of globalization and new technology. As CEO and chair of the board of IBM, I have observed this within IBM and among our clients. And I believe that rather than continuing to focus on past models, regulators, scholars, nongovernmental organizations, community leaders, and business executives would be best served by thinking about the global corporation of the future and its implications for new approaches to regulation, education, trade, and commerce.
In its early forms, the corporation was a creature of the state. Governments chartered and sanctioned corporations to perform specific duties on behalf of the nation and its rulers. This changed somewhat during the nineteenth century, when the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries granted company owners limited liability, and corporations gained a more liberated status as independent "legal persons."
This is a premium article
Buy PDFBuy a premium PDF reprint of this article.
SubscribeSubscribe and get premium access to ForeignAffairs.com.