Are you stupid? In order to know what you do not know you need to be smart enough to understand that you do not know it all and that being stupid in the ways of the World really makes you smart. So here is to all the stupid smart people of the World
I was reading the McKinsey article by Alexis Krivkovich and Cindy Levy called ”managing the people side of Risk” which promote the argument that a strong risk culture can mitigate risk and maximize opportunities for business development. The idea seems appealing, that with the right leadership it is possible to implement the right type of risk culture and thereby enabling companies to “[acquire] new businesses, entering new markets, and investing in organic growth”. However, this functionalist, positivistic idea of culture and risk does leave a lot of questions unanswered and possible constitute a risk in itself. Their main arguments can be split into three headlines.
Culture as a static entity
Is a risk culture something you can implement? Well, I will let it be up to you but from my almost 20 years in private an public organisations I can’t come up with just one example where a risk culture or any other culture have been implemented by management. I have seen many attempts, but never a successful one. The reason is that a risk culture can only be identified retrospectively. You only know that you have a successful risk culture if risk does not materialize into issues and tangible threats, on the other hand it could be that no issues arise because that issues and threats are simply not there. So the question is then, who can identify the culture if you have a strong risk culture if it is impossible to measure? Maybe it takes a McKinsey consultant…
People is the problem not the solution
Management rule their organisations like kings who can choose how individuals think and act in the world around them, or at least this is the claim of McKinsey. In their paper it is the idea that management have in-depth insight and knowledge about all the actions of their employees and that successful companies are the ones that have as much (mind)-control over their employees as possible. However, while we might strive for improved control and efficiency of organisational processes it’s only a few (feebleminded) who will claim that they have total control of employee’s actions. I think that we should count ourselves lucky that we do not have this type of control as adversity fuels organisations ability to innovate and develop and that striving for increased control on the magnitude indicated by the authors will only lead to organisational demise. So instead of perceiving people as the problem organisations should look upon people as the solution to mitigation of risk, not the cause.
Risk is universal
The claim is that successful organisations are the ones that hold people accountable for mistakes made – “To make aspirations for the culture operational, managers must translate them into as many as 20 specific process changes around the organisation, deliberately intervening where it will make a difference in order to signal the right behaviour.” It is not my claim that individuals should not be held accountable for their actions, but it should only be the extent that they actually have control. As risk is universal (fuelled by human actions and decisions) it cannot be one role or person sole responsibility to identify and mitigate risk. It would be impossible for one person to process just a fraction of the information on possible outcomes that organisations produce every day. Rather organisations should empower and disperse decision making to all individuals and groups in the organisation and hold them accountable for their own decisions and its consequences. The role of management becomes one of encouragement and support rather than control and punishment. They are there to ensure that people with right type of training and personal competencies are invited to participate in the continued development of the organisation so that they are equipped to handle mitigate or take advantage of the operational risks that they are facade with.
I have just participated in the EHEF (European Higher Education Fair) in Indonesia where we presented graduate and undergraduate programs in Samarkand and Jakarta. It has been a hectic week with around 15’000 participating students and over 100 European universities and higher education institutions as well as representatives from embassies and the EU.
The success of the fair and the eager questions form the students reaffirm my belief in education as a key indication for how Indonesia is rapidly moving ahead. With a GDP growth of 6,2% a drop in poverty and school enrolment exceeding 100% spurred by more and more overage students enrol in primary school. Indonesians have their eyes firmly targeted at education.
In the years to come I believe that Indonesia will benefit enormously from the education strategy in several key areas.
First, today Indonesia is a multicultural and multi-religious society blending its own unique history with Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and many other religions together. However, as seen elsewhere economic development also have the backside of creating social tensions as some embrace and utilise the opportunities fully, while others feel left behind. What education can help with in this process is to ease the social tensions by providing a more even playing field (or at least as close to as possible) for young people who have talent. While there are differences in access to the best schools and especially for students access to education in Europe and the US it is significant it’s a significant contributor to mitigate the risk of social tensions.
Secondly, it will bring Indonesians in contact with the world in another way than business can. Through the social interaction between students from the countries they travel to and other international students networks are created which will benefit not only themselves, but also ensue long term social and economic sustainability as students become business and government professionals and need contacts that they trust around the world.
Thirdly, It brings knowledge to Indonesia, which is much needed in the years to come if the growth is to be supported and managed. One of the threats that the country is facing is that huge bubbles are created in the economy being in housing or specific sectors. Just taking a look from my one window at the hotel reveals five skyscrapers being build so it is definitely a risk that one have to take serious. And while bubbles is a natural part of a capitalist economy the impact can be cushioned though a economy which is build one more sectors and have more players. As students take business ideas back with them they create new businesses and thereby diversify the economy bringing a valued stabiliser into the equation.
While there are critical voices around the growing internationalisation of undergraduate and graduate education, as it is seen to some as a business rather than an “exchange” of ideas. It think that the benefits significantly and especially long-term far outweighs the downsides.
It seems odd that when corporations show their commitment to society through CSR they get the most out of doing something about the little things. Companies that are successful looks at what they do well and tries to figures out how this impact communities that they are active in, in ways they could not imagine if they did not have the tools provided though CSR.
When reviewing the many definitions of CSR that is out there it gives little or no clue how actually to conduct social responsibility. It would seem that if one just followed conventional wisdom it would be hard if not impossible to satisfy even the simplest requirements given by all these different classifications.
“The Social Responsibility refers to the obligations of businessmen to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society.” Bowen, 1953 in Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, which commonly regarded as the first milestone in modern CSR research and practice.
Another more modern definition have been issued by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) through their guidance on social responsibility “Responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, through transparent and ethical behaviour that contributes to sustainable development, including health and the welfare of society; takes into account the expectations of stakeholders; is in compliance with applicable law and consistent with international norms of behaviour; and is integrated throughout the organization and practiced in its relationships.”
Both of these very fine definitions give little or no clue to what companies should actually do to both successful in terms of profit, development and continued competitive advantage, and at the same time being in tune with societies moral compass.
But some companies have actually done quite well trying to combine their CSR with their core business. Just to give a few examples.
The Swedish fashion company, H&M have under the statement “Conscious” has with worked to create sustainable fashion through a comprehensive CSR system that reduce risks in their supply chain.
All of these initiatives are small when it comes to the efforts that the company needs to put into them because it is embedded in the “what we do” part of their business, but even so that have a huge impact on their outreach to the communities they are active in.
So even though it would seem that these successful companies are focusing on the “little things” they do represent a significant societal impact exactly for that reason.
I always enjoy stories about the ”little-man” against the system and with this story from china where a guy and his family refused to leave his home hit the mainstream news I was instantly captured.
Even though the ”little-man” usually looses in the end these is something about these stories that make them more than just news. They capture our imagination about our own struggles in life and make us think bout how we would react. And even though we would properly give in, just like the “little-man” does in the end, it would give us the idea that for once we fought the systems and for a small glimmer in time we had the feeling that we were winning.
It is something to remember when the system is trying to keep you down.
Before (believing that winning is possible)
This is the next chapter in my series on Social Risk, enjoy.
What do “doing business” and the degree of democracy have to do with each other?
Well for one there is no doubt that companies that operate in environments where there is none or very few institutions in place to ensure a stable business environment often find themselves in situations where ethic and morality is strained. Just take a look at Shell in Nigeria (Oil drilling), H&M in Bangladesh (Clothing factory) or Maersk in China (Container factory) and one will know what it means to operate in such an environment.
To some degree the democratic deficit is self-imposed or reproduced through the understanding that we are “all on the same boat together”. Businesses blame the business environment, Governments blame international society, NGOs blame international business and the population blame politicians. So what we need is stable democracies that are characterized by good governance e.g. institutional structures in which the individual´s rights and freedoms are respected are a prerequisite for sustainable development. This means improvements in two areas:
- That Rule of Law is upheld, ensuring a level playing field.
- Democratic structures in place that ensures that can ensure that power is distributed and not centralized to a few individuals.
- Cooperation should be undertaken with NGOs and civil society forces that work to achieve openings for democracy. In other cases, such as where civil society is small or non-existing, the focus should be on communicating an awareness of democracy, human rights, gender equality and market economy
In Sub-Saharan Africa, a region where economics determines politics of the day and where a culture of democracy has been absent and if present is under the will of a few elites. Even the smallest democratic opportunities are economically conditioned especially during elections because of poverty, corruption, illiteracy, unemployment and not least a playing field which has been all but level.
As we have celebrated the Arab spring there is no evidence that these old structures are so easily dismantled. We hoped for free-elections and a greater degree of transparency would be present, but it has done little in terms of growing a culture of democratic thinking in the region. For example, the political move by Mohammed Morsi to centralize power around the president in Egypt or the lack of security and move towards radical Islamism in Tunisia. The lesson is that democracy is fragile and needs to be supported by strong institutions that can balance the pursuit for power by individuals with the principles of democracy.
The Social Democratic concept of democracy views political institutions as a means to offset the natural power of concentrated wealth that accrues in capitalist economies. However, during the economic crisis it has become apparent that individual states can’t handle the burden that they have been put under alone and have to seek assistance from others. In Africa for example there is no strong institution that can rescue countries in need so there are basically left to their own devisees, while we in the western world can draw on intergovernmental institutions like the EBC or others. In essence this means that the developing world is left with institutions like the IMF, EU, EBRD and the World Bank that impose strict guidelines for economic behavior and limits the ability for democratic processes. This again leads to a greater gap between the ones that have and the ones that don’t both on a region by region level but also between individual states creating tensions and eventually conflict.
For companies a democratic deficit means an uncertain future business environment. It means increased risk of catastrophic collapse and it means that what you might think is yours today might not be so tomorrow because there is no state to guarantee tour basic rights.
- The Democratic Deficit and Trade Unionism (tradeonion.wordpress.com)
- EU’s troika representative denies bailout creates ‘democratic deficit’ - (misebogland.wordpress.com)
- A Ph.D. thesis analyses political mistrust as a means for furthering democracy (eurekalert.org)
Wondering if history is repeating? IMF thinks that there are significant difference between the 2008 food/oil price spike and the one we are experiencing now in 2012. Main argument is that volatility is not the same as then and there is no uniform development across crops.
The analysis is sound in my mind. While I do not believe that the “IMF cure” is what we need with its focus on inflation as the only remedy. IMF acts like the surgeon who said “The operation was a success but the patient died”
However, one good point is that governments should reduce tax on food as a way to reduce the impact of a volatile food market.
Judge for your self: