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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Outside in – bringing intelligence into the corporation

I found this great post by Lee Bryant of Post*shift the other day. Lee describes the clear divide between how social media inside and outside many large organisations is run. How, often, these activities are run by different departments, who may be pulling in different directions. As Lee points out, social on the outside is often run by marketing, while social internally is run by ops, HR and IT.

Marketing, of course, is about giving customers what they want and need.  So a core marketing activity is understanding those wants and needs and communicating them internally – so that the business can respond, and continue to fulfil those needs over time, even as the market changes. That is, in theory at least, how businesses respond to their markets.

But in practice few businesses seem marketing-driven. In a marketing-driven company everything the company does is driven by changes in the market. This means the real power sits with marketing.

Looking around, it seems to me the alternatives are more common. In most cases the power driving the business sits with:

  • engineers and R&D – this explains an apparent proliferation of product features at the expense of benefits that people actually want and need;
  • sales – this explains a short-term focus on increasing sales revenue – regardless of the longer-term brand damage and the like;
  • finance and ultimately the stock exchange – how else can we explain the way  the banking sector seems to be ignoring customer sentiment?

Who or what drives your company?

But Lee’s post is about how (social) marketeers can be part of the solution – helping the business transform so that it is more aligned with what the market truly wants and needs. Even when marketing doesn’t really have all the power it might like.

He rightly points to the need for changes in organisational structure, and the benefits of socialising key processes and workflows.

Content can also be very useful – thought leadership inside an organisation can form the basis of a real dialogue with customers. Leverage the content that people inside businesses work with every day – and use it to start meaningful conversations with customers and potential customers. The result is an increase in trust – and you start to build real relationships across the critical company/customer boundary.

Such relationships form the basis of gaining real intelligence about what the market is saying – what it wants and needs.

Market intelligence isn’t enough

But our experience suggests that even credible (business) intelligence simply isn’t enough to change organisational behaviour. If knowledge and intelligence was sufficient for behaviour change we’d all stick to the speed limit, get enough exercise and happily eat our 5-a-day .

And there are far too many stories of companies that knew perfectly well what was happening in their markets but did nothing about it for us to believe that intelligence is enough.

This is because telling people what to do (based on your superior knowledge/intelligence) doesn’t work – they resist.

Neither does educating them (giving them the benefit of superior knowledge/intelligence) – they still resist.

And actually, despite what some idealists would claim, neither does getting people to ‘buy-in’ through dialogue or the like – real dialogue is a very rare thing indeed.

These approaches don’t work because they tend to ignore the elephant in the room: power. Organisations are all about power – we all know it and yet we hardly ever speak about it.

Good solutions need to take power into account. In fact, leadership, in my view, is about helping people and groups find ways to understand and ‘align’ their power. We all have power – but we are often pulling and pushing in different directions. Leadership is about helping people align – even if only temporarily.

And just how does the marketing leader, or the leader of any kind, build that alignment? There are many ways but one good way is to start by treating other people well. By being respectful and empathic. This is the foundation for any good relationship, and I believe a good relationship is the starting point for finding ways to align power.

But to build good relationships it is also essential to learn to ‘speak up’ – to say what we believe to be true, when faced by other people, not just in the privacy of our own minds or homes. No one respects someone who just tries to please all the time, by keeping quiet, or by agreeing.

Unfortunately, speaking up  is really difficult – the pressure to collude, to fit-in, especially inside a business, is enormous. It is all too easy for the marketing leader to see what is going on but to keep their mouth shut when facing a skeptical ‘superior’.

The good news is that people can learn to speak up more. We use the term ‘congruence’ with our clients because there’s a bit more to it than just speaking-up. In fact, there’s a way of speaking up that enhances relationships rather than harming them, and that is what we are seeking: deeper, more meaningful relationships.

Self-awareness helps. As we grow in awareness we may start to see how much we collude.

A supportive culture helps. One that promotes ideological challenge, open dialogue, and risk-taking in service of a bigger purpose.

But ultimately this is a choice – about putting the goal of helping your business survive and thrive in the digital age ahead of personal fears and limitations. About learning to speak up – in service of others.

There are a couple of events coming up where some of these issues may be discussed: Tomorrow’s Company Today on the 2nd June 2014 (a Conscious Business UK event hosted at Post*shift’s great London offices). And Post*shift have their own event Organising for Social on June 12th.

 


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Institutional corruption?

Remember institutional racism?  This term was coined in the 1960s in the US and widely adopted in the UK in the 1970s to describe a situation where an entire organisation, rather than just one or two individuals within it, collectively fail a particular group of people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. In the UK the term was used to describe the police after a number of high-profile events such those at the Brixton riots, Broadwater Farm and so on.

The idea is that, at least to some extent, the inappropriate behaviours and attitudes of individuals are so widely adopted within the group that they become social norms. Because they are so prevalent, no one questions them. Of if they do question them, their questions fall on deaf ears.

I guess it’s another example of group conformity in action.

Sometimes I wonder whether some organisations today suffer a form of institutional corruption. We all know the extreme examples: Enron, BCCI, Satyam, and so on. Companies where, ultimately, criminal behavior crashed the companies to the ground.

But isn’t corruption sometimes more subtle, and more pervasive?

A while ago, and this is going to begin to sound like an episode from Money Box, my insurance company sent me a renewal notice for my household insurance. Something made me check – and I discovered that they had increased the premium by 30% compared to last year.

When I called them, as soon as they heard the problem was “price”, they put me on to their “loyalty team”. When the salesman (sorry “loyalty consultant”) heard the price he quickly recomputed it and said they could offer the same service for a 0% increase instead.

Now my guess is that probably quite a few customers can’t be bothered to check what last year’s premium was and just renew automatically. Personally, I think that is pretty dubious behaviour for a business. Imagine how I might feel if I went into a shop and they tried to short-change me by 30%?

Wouldn’t I right to be aggrieved? Might it even be fraudulent or criminal?

When I enter into a relationship with a company I expect to be dealt with honestly – I want to trust that company and have them reward my trust. Would the shopkeeper who short-changed me by 30% retain my trust?

So going back to the idea of institutionalised behaviour, is it possible, then, that an entire company can be institutionally corrupt?

Is it possible that the salesman thinks of his role as an upstanding member of the “loyalty” team – when actually he’s in the “covering up our corruption” team?

That his managers and others in the company think that this kind of behaviour is so normal that it’s “commercial best practice”?

Is it possible that even the senior management and the CEO are so institutionally blind that they believe it right and proper to accept favourable compensation packages even while their employees are behaving in ways that are dubious or verge on the criminal?

Could this institutional corruption extend beyond the company to the whole industry? To other companies? To its regulators? To the media? Sometimes there’s not a critical voice to be heard, anywhere, of what some might think are corrupt practices – “this is just the way it is in this industry, it is just the norm”.

When the UK police were accused of institutional racism I can still remember the confused, questioning voices from their representatives: “You can’t be talking about us? We’re not racist”. It took a long, long time to really sink in.

The irony, is, of course, that as with the police force, or any other organisation, the public recognise this institutional racism, or corruption, or whatever it is, much sooner than those inside the organisation.

It feels wrong. But often the fact that everyone else is telling you its right makes it harder to put a name to it. It requires bravery to stand up and make that kind of statement.

Consciousness, even?

But businesses that are institutionally corrupt will lose customer loyalty in the long-run. My insurance company has already lost mine.


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4 good reasons to make your business more conscious now

I get some perplexed looks when I mention ‘conscious business’, which are often initially followed by further confusion as I try to explain the concept. This is because on the face of it, it does not sound very ‘business-like’. But then, maybe the problem with business practice as we’ve always known it, is that it has actually remained too ‘business-like’ and that hasn’t evolved along with the needs, awareness and expectations of society. This leads me to my first point…

  1. Evolution through expectations in the workplace

It might be living in Brighton, it might be that I’m getting older, but it feels like we’re finally getting over the ‘greed is good’ hump and refocusing towards something a bit more enriching. Maybe trying to climb an increasingly greasy pole makes us pause for thought and wonder why we’re focusing so much energy on that specific objective and not so much on everything else in life, such as making it more enjoyable, or pondering what it would be like to look forward to going to work every day because we just love it there.

This is not unique to our generation, it’s the ongoing culmination of the evolution that has been before us and that continues every day. The same basic principles that eradicated slavery, for example, have influence on the increased adoption of flexible working hours, less structured working environments, less formality, project days once a week, etc.

We’re slowly realising that effective collaboration and a well boundaried democracy is far more productive, adaptable and enjoyable than a mono-focused dictatorship. Conscious business is the natural next step in the business evolutionary process and it’s already happening.

  1. Knowledge changes things

Being able to Google anything from your pocket – apart from ruining the pub quiz – has a more profound impact on how society functions because the wide distribution of knowledge means we’re no longer living in the dark, trusting only a few questionable sources.

Part of this shift to knowledge ubiquity has been the rattling of the skeletons in many company’s cupboards. In fact now it’s a bit like the cupboard doors have been removed so all can see inside. So if a company is less than honest and perhaps a little too cut-throat in their practice, the knowledge of this will increasingly decide how and more importantly if, we deal with these people now or in the future.

Consider the web site TripAdvisor: when people have good or bad holiday experiences they have a forum to publicise this information. This knowledge helps others decide whether they want to go to a particular hotel, for example, but most importantly it transfers control of the hotel’s reputation into the hands of the hotel users who are perhaps more objective than the hotel itself.

So if you are not open, honest and genuine in your dealing with your clients you rapidly risk being left behind as your potential customers go to those hotels that are. Wouldn’t it be better to be the hotel that they move to, rather than the one they move from?

Now this sort of balance is what we’ve always wanted but we’ve never had the tools to achieve it before. To that extent, though social media has provided the tool, it’s in response to an underlying desire for balance and fairness that is innate within us. And this is an important distinction: what we innately desire is conscious business, it’s just we’ve lacked the tools to achieve it. Without this desire, TripAdvisor would never have been conceived, let alone built.

On the other side of this the internet also empowers us to make change directly, hence:

  1. The empowerment of the general public

The other part of the ‘TripAdvisor effect’ is that if you’ve been poorly treated by a company as a customer or in B2B dealings, you can broadcast that experience to the world quite easily. So suddenly we’re empowered and the knowledge that we can do this makes us less likely to accept substandard practice.

Last time I got stitched up by restaurant owner, who admitting the mistake (thinking I was a tourist rather than a local) refused to do anything about it, I posted a factual article about the experience on a local restaurant review site for others to read. There were many similar complaints from others – maybe I should have checked first – next time I will.

Now I know most people reading this would never consider ‘stitching anyone up’ for anything but the point is in a business that attempted some empathy with their customers rather than just trying to say the right things to extract the maximum amount of money, one where the client is valued as an ongoing relationship rather than a ‘mark’ to fleece, that business would be full of clients throughout the sparse ‘tourist free’ winter months. This one is always empty. Now I know why.

Again my personal desire was to redress the balance because I’ve been swindled by sharp practice and left with an unwholesome taste in my mouth. It’s just that before I could never do anything other than mention this to a few friends, and now I feel a real sense of  redress because I have ‘outed’ them publicly.

Social media is the tool but it’s only used because there is a desire from me wanting to do something about the situation, to let them know that their behaviour is unacceptable in a way where they can’t brush it under the carpet and to warn others.  Personally I only want the nice, fair businesses to survive and I think I’m probably not alone in that.

Which neatly leads me to the last point and that’s all about spin.

  1. We are better spin detectors

Spin has been the norm in political messaging for a good long time, but because we are aware of it, we’ve got more cautious about believing it and on the whole we’re pretty sick of it. We know when we’re being spun and very often where to look to find the truth or at least what sort of questions to ask to reveal what the spin is designed to conceal. We’re tired of being lied to and want something better than that.

If you think about your relationships in general you will probably find that, if you are honest with yourself, what you prize more now than ever is truthfulness or congruence in how you’re communicated with. We’re tired of being bullshitted to and we increasingly know when it’s happening.  So a very positive differentiator when attracting customers is to be straight with them.

Also remember being congruent is just sooo much easier as well. One of my favourite quotes, from Oscar Wilde I think, is this: ‘People who never lie have it easy because they never have anything to remember.’ If you are always straight and open you will build trusting, long lasting and fruitful relationships.

So where does all this take us? Well, there are lots of reasons to make your business more conscious, but none better than to capitalise by being in front of the revolution as the sort of business that everyone in society wants you to be, rather than desperately trying to catch up when you’ve been left behind.


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A Meaning Economy?

I’ve written before about what a Conscious Business is. And what it is not. But no man, and no business, is an island. Businesses live and operate in a market.

And what kind of market is that? At the moment, for example, we seem to have:

  • Web 2.0 people theorising about the importance of ethereal content over physical objects, of production versus consumption;
  • psychologists, and even the UK government, propounding the importance of well-being and happiness;
  • an ever-growing discussion of environmental sustainability;
  • the feminisation of the work-place;
  • the rise of long-term, inter-generational thinking;
  • and, of course, the rise of Conscious Business – in all its various shapes and forms.

Could this all be part of an even bigger trend for the market? A shift towards what we might call a “meaning economy“? We’ve had the information economy, and the knowledge economy. (Once I even heard talk of a “wisdom” economy.)

A meaning economy for me is one in which people’s basic needs are already met through the producing power of our industrial economy. And instead people start to change their focus towards gaining more meaning in their lives.

But what is meaning? Meaning is an answer to the question “why?”, not the industrial age questions of “how many?”, or “how much?. We know how to answer those questions and we know how to answer questions about “what”, “who”,  and sometimes even “when”. Why we want things, why we have things, why we do things: the answers remain much more elusive.

Put another way, is the overall market changing so that people are no longer satisfied with just goods, and no longer satisfied with shabby, or any, “services” – are they seeking instead to fulfil their higher values?

Of course this won’t mean much to the billion at the bottom of the pyramid. But for the aspirational 5 billion people in the world – is that where we are heading?

If so, this might mean different things in relation to each of the product types we are already familiar with, and we can see that some of these trends are already underway in some areas of the economy:

  • for a physical, tangible product it means valuing the associated brand and reputation more than just the product itself;
  • for a service it means valuing the associated relationships more than just the service itself;
  • for content it means producing something that deeply touches the heart and soul, not just the mind.

In business more generally it might mean shifting our emphasis as we try to build revenue and profitability. Shifting it:

  • from technological innovation to service innovation;
  • from growing functional value to growing relationship value;
  • from improving process quality to a focus on the quality of the customer experience;
  • from strategies that grow transactional volumes to those that grow loyalty and retention;
  • and even from strategies designed to reduce cost to strategies of investment;
  • and so on.

All of these things have been identified before, of course. And some would say that a knowledge economy leads to some of these things. So, I wonder, does it add anything to see this as a change in the market to meaning away from information and knowledge? What else might that ‘frame’ tell us?


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Elvis was right

This post is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

I listened recently to philosopher Peter Singer talking at the RSA. The talk was all about boundaries. At the end I must admit I thought “wasn’t that all just common sense?”.

It took a little time for the power of his words to settle in.

He spoke about the boundaries we create in our lives – between other people and ourselves, even between animals and ourselves. He linked three much discussed issues: global poverty, animal rights, and climate change together, pointing out that each was really about boundaries. Boundaries between us and others far away, us and animals, and us and future inhabitants of the earth.

His suggestion, as I understood it, is that sometimes these boundaries are false or over-estimated. And sometimes they turn into barriers. And that these barriers can cause us to act irrationally – for example, to fail to transfer even a small amount of our income to solve problems of poverty; to treat animals in sometimes appalling ways; and to continue to destroy the planet with obvious disregard for those who follow us.

Another potentially dangerous boundary, I’d suggest, and one that often becomes a barrier,  is the one between customers and companies.

When we allow it to become a barrier we create products and services that harm the planet. And we cut ourselves off from the value and joy we could be giving to each other through exchange,  innovation and commerce.

Thesis 29 of the Cluetrain Manifesto runs as follows: Elvis said it best: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.”

Surely, suspicious minds are at the root of the thinking that turns a boundary into a barrier?

We fear what we don’t know. We fear what might happen. We lack trust. And the truth is we often don’t take the steps needed to build that trust.

I am not sure that we can ever completely remove suspicion. It serves a biological purpose, I am fairly sure. But we can become more conscious of it. We can take actions to reduce it. To develop and grow its antidote: trust in others.

  • We can become more conscious of it by looking for examples of media, both old and new, that stereotype. We can challenge or avoid them.
  • We can watch the stereotyping, and labelling and judging behaviour, in ourselves. How often, when confronted by someone who says something we disagree with, do we label that person: “he’s a jerk”; “he’s stupid”; or, simply, “he’s weak”?
  • We can feel our fear – simply by focussing on an emotion, sometimes we can reduce it’s power.
  • We can challenge our beliefs. We can get out there and meet and talk to people. Even people we wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. To prove to ourselves how our stereotypes and suspicions are so often wrong.

It’s one of the great things about new media and the Internet – it has the potential to break down barriers between people, between creator and audience, and between customers and companies.

But to make that potential real we need to see more clearly, and to act, to take steps, to overcome our suspicion.

PS Next in the list is Kevin MacKenzie, at mack-musings.blogspot.com. You can see the full list of posts in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto here.


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What IS a sustainable business?

So what is a sustainable business exactly? Surely we must know by now.

  • Is it a green business?
  • Is it a business that is good at environmental management? That follows an ISO standard?
  • Is it a business that’s good at CSR? At accountability? With a good human rights record?

I have a more simple definition. A sustainable business is one that lasts for ever.

OK, you’ll jump on me now and say that simply lasting for ever isn’t the right definition. Some of the companies on the list of the oldest companies in the world aren’t really green and they may not be specifically concerned about their impact on human rights.

And they almost certainly don’t conform to ISO 14001.

But I believe that lasting for ever is an excellent aspiration for a business. No business (and no human) will ever achieve it. But it’s a really good goal.

It’s a good goal because to achieve it a business has to become really good at a number of things:

  • Being a learning organisation. Fancy words that mean that a company develops and grows – not necessarily in size, but like a person, becoming wiser with age. Stronger perhaps, but stronger with compassion, not violence.
  • Caring for the environment. If a business doesn’t care for the environment, then eventually the environment will hit back. Whether it’s fuel prices or raw materials – any business that is ultimately dependent on depleting these resources will eventually run out of them – or find itself  uncompetitive.
  • Caring for the people it employs. Businesses are people. Businesses can’t learn but people can. And if people aren’t cared for then ultimately they will walk or give less than they can.
  • Caring for human rights more generally. If a business breaks this rule, sooner or later people including customers and investors will figure it out. Ignoring human rights is a violation so huge that most people will eventually, when faced by the facts, turn away. Without customers and investors no business can survive.
  • Really understanding and fitting into the market. The market is all these things: customers, investors, people, resources. It’s more than that too – it’s the complex interactions between these things, the system that makes up the world we all live in.  It’s the connections, the inter-dependencies, the limits, and the whole.

Understanding the market means understanding our world and our place in it.  Understanding that if our goal is human sustainability then we need to address all the complex issues of poverty, war, greed, species destruction, resource depletion, climate change and so on. And find a way to really fit in.

Unless a business gets really good at these things it simply won’t last.

And neither will we.