Nov 082012

I was quite shocked this morning to hear that an ex-oil executive was to become the new Archbishop of Canterbury – and wondered idly if the next Pope would be ex-CEO to some nuclear company or other.

Now I’m probably being a little unfair here: there’s no reason an experience of corporate activity can’t prepare one better for dealing with its excesses in relation to the most defenceless in society.  It may, indeed, be true that the gentleman in question has lived outside the ivory tower of religious contemplation.  Down amongst the “dirty dirty” readies us for understanding that reality which may be quite beyond the hermits.

It did make me pause for thought, though. And these are the thoughts that occurred to me.

Let’s take a look at the alleged downsides and upsides of corporate experience more generally.  First the downsides:

  • profit-driven above all – they have little sense of other values and missions that might contribute to long-term gain in society
  • selfish and highly competitive – they conceptualise life as a battle and war, where the enemy can undo one at any time
  • unfaithful to the communities that originally created them – always willing to up sticks and move if tax regimes are better elsewhere, they are generally happy to leave their origins and let them disintegrate in their absence
  • cut-throat employment and salary policies – they are not averse to playing one group of workers against another in order to better drive down the easiest costs to reduce
  • disloyal to their workforces in times of economic downturn – you’ll have spent a lifetime working unpaid extra hours, but this will mean nothing when shareholders must be placated
  • union-busting behemoths – the ultimate control freaks
  • politically illegitimate – they use their profits and massive resources to fund political campaigns in order to improve their tax regimes and reduce their liabilities to the state, even as they happily use the infrastructures such states create

The list could go on – I’m no expert, just a simple observer.  But we can get a feel for what’s going wrong in many parts of corporate-land.  And just remember: the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the English, has almost certainly experienced environments which encourage – or have encouraged – the above.

So now – weirdly and dissonantly – onto the upsides I suggest might also exist:

  • evidence-based organisations – they manage huge amounts of data and at their occasional best take logical decisions on transnational scales
  • people-focussed rather than tribal-focussed communities – though they all create the single tribe of company all must be loyal to, within that company it’s occasionally results that count more than ethnicity, sexual orientation or mother tongue: again, where it happens, it happens on a massive scale
  • specialisation – I’m in two minds about this: on the one hand, specialisation makes us necessarily better at what we do; on the other hand, it builds silos of knowledge which unhappily divide us from each other, as well as make it more difficult to identify productive connections between different fields of knowledge
  • repositories of knowhow and good practice – no, they may not always learn from what their workforces have achieved, nor always share effectively their very own intellectual property, but the knowhow and good practice is registered somewhere in their depths – and often manages to improve step-by-step how things are fashioned, engineered and implemented
  • their peaceable instincts – yes, there are many corporates involved up to the hilt not only in warlike discourses but also in war-related activities, but most – the vast majority I would say – look for stability, peace and a steady hand in our civilisations over a churning change and uncertainty: this is not a small virtue in the times we currently inhabit
  • their global perspective – where many if not most politicians turn inward on their nation-states and run their relatively parochial cliques of power with equal gobbets of gusto and reductionism, corporations by their very transnational and expansionary ambitions always turn their eyes towards the wider horizon: in a sense, we have in corporations the colonial impulses of the empires of old – yet with a far greater degree of multiplicity than was ever the case.  That convergent evolution tends to drive them to looking very similar doesn’t remove from our experience of life the reality that a carefully-woven tapestry of internationalised activity does nevertheless exist

To my closing thoughts, then.

Maybe, in corporations, we could reasonably argue that they could be a force for weird good, if only we knew how to usefully inflect their overarching motivations.  That most are generally dysfunctional legal persons at the moment is absolutely clear to me.  But that doesn’t mean the people who work in them are necessarily dysfunctional themselves.  Nor does it mean that such networks of communication and operation couldn’t, in some way, somehow, function far more societally than is the case.

For the vision, post-World War II, of a global and unitary world may – in the end – not come from the hand of politicians and their grubby attempts to covet the votes of the people.  Rather, it may come from the properly renewed forces of commerce which, learning how to be social and moral as well as determinedly commercial, acquire the ability to bring us together in one singular tribe of honest people.