Business organizations involve complex interactions of economic and social forces. We observe and analyze organizations using a combination of economics, ethics, sociology and systems theory.

A person or community that possesses intentions and attributes value to things. A person or community that is regarded as having a legitimate interest or "stake" in something - for example a system or project.

Traditional business ethics defined the purpose of a business solely in terms of satisfying the interests of the shareholders. But some businessmen wanted to recognize the legitimate interests of other groups of people; they started to use the term "stakeholder" rather than "shareholder". The similarity of the two words is deliberate: it draws attention to the substitution of a broader concept for a narrow one.

Thus use of the term stakeholder was originally to be inclusive rather than exclusive. It leads people to argue that companies should be run for the benefit of a range of stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers and neighbours, and not merely for the benefit of shareholders. Similarly, housing estates should be run for the benefit of the tenants, not just the landlords; schools for the benefit of pupils and parents, not just the convenience of teachers; and so on. Some politicians talk about a stakeholder society. To label a person or community as a stakeholder is to legitimize action intended for their benefit.

To the businessman who takes the concept of stakeholder seriously, what is important is not just the specific set of people who are named as stakeholders, but the ongoing mission to identify and include people who might otherwise be excluded. Similarly in politics, the stakeholder agenda indicates a desire to recognize the interests of the people who might otherwise be left out or disadvantaged.

However, some managers and analysts seem to regard the concept of stakeholder as exclusive. There is a closed list of stakeholders, drawn up at the start of a project, who may be consulted at various stages of the project. If you're not identified as a stakeholder, then your opinion doesn't matter. I deplore the exclusive use of the stakeholder concept.

The stakeholder agenda therefore entails a renewed attention on the processes associated with stakeholdership. Who looks after the stakeholder's interests, and how? Who legitimates new stakeholders?