The greed corporation and social failure

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy July 31, 2013
Is American business being driven by distinctly 'anti-social' motivators? The evidence seems to point in that direction. This cannot be good news for those who believe in the value of human endeavor.

social failure
A post by Henry Blodget entitled This One Tweet Reveals What's Wrong With American Business is creating a storm of comment. On Facebook, social maven Susan Scrupski is far from happy. My own comment: "Another reason why 'social' fails internally?" And then I remembered seeing an NBC report: Rich people more likely to cheat, behave badly, research finds, which made Ms Scrupski even madder. But it all fits.

The nub of Blodget's argument says:

In practice, American business culture has become so obsessed with maximizing short-term profits that employees aren't regarded as people who are members of a team.

Rather, they are regarded as "costs."

Regardless of who you are that view jars. Alongside, the NBC report says:

While there are examples of rich people who are especially generous -- think Warren Buffet and Bill Gates -- money seems to have a deleterious effect on ethics in most cases.

True? Experiments seem to indicate there is considerable truth in this hypothesis.

In conversations I've had with many of the 'social anything' crowd, I've consistently argued that any notion of 'social' inside business would likely be met with a raspberry. The connotations with 'social-ism' are too easy to make and anathema to any business executive. That's not conjecture, simply the way I see it as a social scientist by training used to speaking with high level executives. Does this mean the social mavens are tilting at windmills?

Euan Semple often says that he avoids using the 'socially' connoted terms. More than attempting to avoid the hype (quite rightly), he too knows that 'social' is often seen as a toxic term. Lee Bryant on the other hand is transparent about his motivations:

...we have always spoken about our real goal being to humanise the enterprise and help explore what the operating system for Twenty-First Century organisations might look like, rather than just to encourage the adoption of a new class of tools. What we meant by this is that the practice of business, on the whole, has become too process-driven and insufficiently personal, both inside organisations and in terms of how they relate to their customers and partners. Why does this matter? Principally, because this method of orchestrating human labour and creating value for customers is both highly inefficient, requiring lots of management and controls, but also because it is often deeply unsatisfactory for the people involved.

On its face, Bryant's argument is as compelling as any I've heard but then Bloget sees a different pattern that is evidenced in American companies being more profitable than at any time in the past. However, he warns this has led to an investment failure that he believes holds dangers into the future: is a choice, unfortunately, that is destroying America's middle class, robbing American consumers (a.k.a., "employees") of spending power, and, ironically, hurting the growth of the same corporations that are making this choice.

If your customers are strapped, your company can't grow.

And, right now, American companies are choosing to impoverish their customers (employees), while skimming off as much wealth as possible for themselves.

In Bryant's world view, he says:

...we operated under the term Social Business, which was intended to describe the people and process elements of building modern businesses, as well as the novel technology that underpinned it. This term seemed to resonate and was picked up and championed by IBM and others to describe what they were also doing in this space.

Now contrast this with comments on Blodget's post and this one in particular:

Rick S.

TPF Development Lab Manager at IBM

You hit the nail right on the head with this. I am living this everyday here at IBM and it is very sad to see the actions that this once great company takes that are so against the employees. I think that everyone understands what the issue is though, the question is what is the solution? You're going to be hard pressed to talk the people at the top of corporations who are making truckloads of money to give that up.

Both cannot be right yet we see continued spending on Talent Management (TM) solutions for example. My sense is that if Bloget is right then it is no wonder that TM solutions sell well. In American culture, the free market rules - but those rules seem to include doing anything it takes to make a buck. If you're a middle manager looking to rise the ranks then I suppose ruthlessness is a valued trait. It certainly seems to be the Silicon Valley way.

The other week I recorded a long podcast with Gary Turner where I said 'culture eats everything' and that the only way I see institutional change occurring is where there is a significant degree of pain in prospect. Earlier this week, I heard André Stelzner, CIO City of Cape Town opine that inflicting economic pain is the way to modify behavior. More prosaically, I had a conversation with an American vacationer who bemoaned the 'socialist' tendencies he sees in American political culture. It wasn't an argument I chose to pursue.

Where does this leave those who would 'social-ize' business? I see the argument that valuing human endeavor should be a priority if 'we' are to unlock the full potential of business activity in the 21st century. But if the reported financial results don't require that acceptance then what?

There are no obvious answers. Semple and Bryant report success inside some large organizations and I don't doubt they see that at some level. But if senior management culture, and especially that of the US, is now being driven by factors that are distinctly anti-social, then we might be in for a long wait before the 'social-izing' of business becomes the norm. On the other hand, there are rays of hope. Check this long, bleak post from Dave Pollard (ht Euan Semple.) If you don't have the patience to read all that Dave offers go to the end:

Things are not as they seem. For now, knowing that will have to be enough. It is probably both too early and too late to act on that knowledge. When the time comes to act, I think, we will know what to do. The creatures of this world who live in reality will remind us, when we’re ready to face it. It may not be soon, but it won’t be long.

You decide.

Image credits: Featured image: © yamix - Post image: Geof Oppenheimer


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