At a recent workshop I attended, discussion focussed on defining the purpose of individual organisations. To start with, I was a bit perplexed about this topic – isn’t this automatically defined in the mission and vision statements? I then found the short answer to this is – no.

What I discovered is that whilst the mission and vision statements are certainly important, they only form a part of the story. To gain further understanding, it’s important to look at the role each one plays. Effective Governance discusses the differences between the three quite well and how some organisations use them all interchangeably. To put it succinctly– the purpose is why you do what you do; the mission statement defines what you do and for whom; the vision statement is the future objectives for the organisation.

Upon further reading into this topic, I found some key thinkers have also pondered the point about purpose, not only for the current environment they are operating in but also for the future. Art Barter explains this in the “Art of Servant Leadership” in which he puts that the mission and purpose for his business are that ‘We want to be a profitable, self-sustaining communications company that positively impacts the lives of others, today and into the future’. The first part of this statement is about the mission i.e. to ‘be a profitable, self-sustaining communications company’, and the second section i.e. ‘positively impacts the lives of others, today and into the future’ is the purpose. For this author, the purpose is what drives the business, the way it recruits staff and the way it demonstrates the difference it makes to its customers and to the wider community.

Looking at Purpose

The differences between vision, mission and purpose got me thinking about what I see when I am onsite auditing or assessing organisations. Most often, website information and details in strategic plans include statements about the mission and vision, without any specific reference to purpose or the reasons why the organisation exists in the first place. When I interview staff, sometimes there is a real disconnect between what people are doing on-the-job with why what they are doing is important, not only to the organisation but to clients as well as to themselves as human beings. Considering how often people appear to be moving from job to job nowadays and the implications associated with recruiting people who will have a long-term commitment to the organisation, perhaps it is timely to look at purpose in more depth. To understand the organisation’s purpose and why what it does is so important to the clients it serves as well as to the community, and for staff to feel a sense of purpose with what they are contributing in their work roles.

Looking forward, in amongst the changes attributable to rapidly evolving technology and the general shifts that are expected to impact our society beyond 2020, there are some growing trends around organisations being expected to demonstrate long-term strategy as well as a clear societal purpose. Some organisations are doing this now and including their staff in the process, with expectations around staff being able to define their purpose as well as the organisation as a whole. I have seen this in practice with several services, where the purpose is really clear at the strategic level and practically demonstrated by each staff member working for the service. When I see this, it is really refreshing and the flow-on effect to clients is generally positive: they can feel the difference in the ways the staff are delivering services and supports.

Purpose within the Auditing Sector

Thinking about my role as an auditor/assessor, I think the focus on purpose for the work that I do is no different to what is being talked about for organisations and staff elsewhere. I am very clear about my purpose and sometimes have been able to explain this during onsite processes. I.e. that I focus on positively strengthening the organisation’s ‘back-of-house’ operations using the relevant standards framework so that they [the organisation and its staff] can deliver the best possible services to their customers. Front and centre, a total commitment towards doing the best I can at the time with the organisation, its staff, and outwards to its customers. Am I responsible for what the organisation does? No, I am not but I am 100% responsible for my own actions and for what I am doing at the time. The purpose I have with the work I do is what is important to me – and continues to drive my own efforts to be the best that I can be. Do clients care about this? I don’t know, perhaps not, but perhaps it is time for clients to start asking questions about what the auditor’s purpose is as well. The purpose is not simply what organisations and other staff should be expected to have – auditors and assessors should have this as well. Food for thought!

Thinking ahead:

1. Has your organisation defined its purpose, separate to its mission and vision? If so, what tangible difference has this approach made to the organisation and the services it provides to customers?
2. Do your staff have a sense of purpose for the work they are doing? If you can see this, what does individual purpose look like? If you can’t see staff members with a purpose, what needs to be done to address this?
3. Do you see your auditor’s purpose when they arrive onsite for an audit? What does it feel like when the auditor’s purpose is not aligned with what your organisation’s purpose is?