Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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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Enough is enough

I came across a really neat little report today – “Enough is Enough” – that summarises in just ten pages the reasons why we need a steady state economy, and what we need to do to get started on creating such a thing.

It was produced by two British non-profit organisations: CASSE and Economic Justice for All, and is based on work at the first Steady State Economy Conference held in June last year.

The ten straightforward proposals seem very much aligned with what we are trying to do with Conscious Business. In fact, so much so, that I have added links to relevant past posts in the list below. The ten proposals include:

  • stabilising population – sensible in a finite world, but what a challenge to achieve and maintain this;
  • reforming the monetary system – if you thought stabilising population was difficult, imagine successfully reforming banks, bankers and all that;
  • changing the way we measure progress – something so deeply entrenched in establishment thinking, and in the education system itself;
  • improving global co-operation – vital to balance the needs of countries where growth is necessary with developed countries like ours, but an immense political challenge;
  • engaging politicians and the media – another daunting task; but there are always early adopters in these groups.

And five in particular standout as of specific relevance to business:

  • limiting resource use and waste production – this, to me, is the only sensible route in a finite world, and business as a huge user of resources and producer of waste clearly has an enormous role to play in this;
  • limiting inequality – lots of practical things we can do here and are already exploring – like limiting the gap between the highest and lowest paid; and introducing new models of business ownership;
  • securing full employment – this requires a change in the way we think about employment – for example, to allow us to reduce the working week. I have written before about the real, underlying challenges of this;
  • changing consumer behaviour – we have the technology, and probably the know-how; but do we, collectively, have the will: this means, ultimately, changing ourselves?
  • rethinking business and production – the key here for me is changing the primary goal of business towards developing the people in the business – helping them become more conscious and happier.

All of these things are difficult individually. And overall the list of 10 priorities can make the whole exercise seem overwhelmingly hard. But two things strike me:

  1. We are already some way down the track on many of these things. I know more about the business elements than the others but I know we have been experimenting – going around the loop of failure and success – for many years. Conscious Business itself is already a broad and growing church.
  2. What an exciting and amazing overall goal? A true Big Hairy Audacious Goal – something stimulating and exciting for a whole new generation of younger business people. Young people who in many cases aren’t held back by the attitudes and outlook of their older colleagues. People who are happy to shake up the status quo and challenge “Establishment” thinking.
Game on!


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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.