A Critique of Pure Reason – Business forgot how to listen

Immanuel Kant Deutsch: Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant Deutsch: Immanuel Kant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kant said; “Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own intelligence! is therefore the motto of the enlightenment…” (Critique of Pure Reason)

But it would seem that Business did not learn that listening meant one had to listen to somebody else than the ones that represent the status quo.

What happened when it became common sense and a taken for granted thinking, that any business venture claiming to be socially responsible had to have a direct link to the bottom-line? As a keen follower of CSR and developments within business ethics it seems that the discourse of Corporate Social Responsibility have steered of course and to some extend have fall down a cliff.

CSR was about (I thought) making a difference to society not because it made good business sense, but because it was the right thing to do. Now it seems to be the other way around. Even though I to a large extend blame Porter and Kramer for their so-called “shared value” they only tap into a discourse, which already existed in the mainstream business culture. That “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud “(Thanks, Friedman for making it clear). That in order to be a legitimate in business one had first of all to think of the bottom-line, that even though business might disclaim Freidman’s claim they continue to follow his credo. CSR have become a business opportunity rather than change in they way that business relate to the society and communities that they are a integrated part of.

It seems to me that companies that pursue profit in the name of CSR are trying to stand on both sides of the river. Claiming that they have not left their liberal roots, while at the same time trying desperately to convince their more critical stakeholders that they are continuing down the path of rightness.

However, at the core of CSR is the ability to see beyond narrow self-interest looking beyond profit seeking and towards doing the right thing rather than doing things right. I do not claim that any business will be any more successful, or that they will even have a better brand or see an increase in dedicated employees. What my argument is that in order to really and I do mean really, know ones business environment one have to be open, open in a way that puts aside narrow interests of division leaders and executive managers and beyond one owns business raison d’etre. Individual business leaders have to realise that their actions cannot only be guided by the search of “the business case” they will have to use their intelligence to incorporate the guidance of the people who is affected by their decisions.

Effective communication in a world of imperfect systems

So what is the difference between systems and communication? Well, the problem with systems is that they are unable to predict or function in situations where the organization is faced with a situation it does not know about. For most people it is hard to understand why BP could let a simple pressure valve determine the future image of the corporation. When one look at the situation that BP was faced with it was not the failure of the system that was the problem but it was the inability to understand the communicative risk that was involved.

BP or Transocean as the drilling company is called, knew from the systems that when they decided to cut costs and not maintain this simple safety feature that there was a certain chance that if a accident would happened they would be unable to shut down the flow of oil. Because Transocean did not understand the communicative aspect of such an incident happening there cost-benefit analysis did not take into account that the risk was not only to the rig and surrounding environment, but also to the reputation and image of themselves and their biggest client BP. This failure of comprehension was the biggest mistake that the company made when they decided to rely on only there systems to give information about the processes.

To me it is the combination systems and effective organizational communication that will enable companies to identify and counter future events. The systems will tell you what you already know while organizational communication collects new knowledge and ensures that it is effectively spread to the people who needs to know and can act. Of cause this requires the right type of managers and leaders but I’m convinced that leaders who are unable to work and comprehend these two aspects will cease to exist thorough a Darwinian process that have been in progress for the past ten years and that will continue for the next ten to come.