Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Top 10 Corporate Responsibility Stories of 2011

It's that time of year again when we consider the big news events around corporate responsibility during the past twelve months. It has undoubtedly been a significant year, with some stories potentially having a huge impact on future corporate responsibility practice or government policy. Nuclear accidents, protests galore, high level corruption - there's been a lot of ugliness again this year. But sometimes you've got to go down before you can go up. Let's hope 2011 will be looked back on as the year that business finally woke up to the new realities of corporate responsibility.

1. Fukushima nuclear disaster
As with the BP oil leak in 2010, no corporate responsibility story dominated the media in the same way that Fukushima did. And for good reason. The world's second worst nuclear disaster (after Chernobyl) slammed home just how risky the nuclear industry could be. Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the company operating the plant, has had to shoulder a lot of the blame for its shoddy risk management, poor planning and siting, falsified safety records, governance procedures, and lots more besides. Its now mired in debt, awaiting either nationalization or a government bail-out. Japanese regulators meanwhile failed in providing adequate oversight, in large part due to overly cosy relations with the energy industry. Not surprising then that Fukushima also had huge impacts more broadly, most notably in a massive swing away from nuclear in the clean energy debate. Germany for one has made a 180 degree switch away from nuclear. Really this was the mother of all corporate responsibility disasters in 2011.

2. The 'Occupy' movement
Starting with Los Indignados in Spain, gradually hitting the headlines with Occupy Wall Street, and then turning into a global phenomenon, the Occupy Movement thrust social equity and democracy into the corporate responsibility debate like never before. We've had anti-capitalism protests before, but the Occupy Movement took a much more focused aim at the titans of the financial sector, and kept an unlikely conversation going for months. The challenges the unruly movement posed for business may not always have been crystal clear, but they've struck such a chord with the general public, and even among senior business leaders, that they can't just be ignored. Demands for tax justice, banking regulation, and more controls on corporate political influence have all received a fillip by the movement. Who know's? Maybe in time, the legacy of Occupy for corporate responsibilty may even surpass that of Fukushima.

3. News International phone hacking scandal
Few corporate responsibility stories can claim the scalp of an entire business, but the closing of the UK newspaper the News of the World, and the arrest of its editor, Rebekah Brooks, in July of 2011 showed just how significant the phone hacking story surrounding News International had become. When the story also took the scalp of the UK's most senior police officer, and landed veteran media mogul Rupert Murdoch in a Parliamentary inquiry, the reverberations were felt near and far. We like our journalists to pursue truth. But when they cross the line and illegally tap the private phones of bereaved families, it's clearly time for a clean up in the media. On the bright side, the story was broken, and vigorously investigated over several years, by the Guardian newspaper. So while we may not trust journalists all that much any more (if we ever did), the story also demonstrated the importance of a strong and independent media as a corporate responsibility watchdog.

4. FIFA's corruption own-goal
2011 was a bad year for integrity in sport. The Pakistani cricket betting scandal, the Sumo wrestling bout-fixing revelations, the Penn State University football coaching sex abuse case, the continued flow of scandals convulsing the Chinese Football Association and the Turkish Football Federation - few sports or countries have managed to come out looking clean. But rising above them all has been the FIFA corruption story, which more than any other sporting corruption story of 2011, demonstrated not just how deeply ingrained corruption is in sport but even how much it is embedded in sporting management and administration. The scandal has been rumbling on at least since 2010 when allegations about bought votes in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting competition started pouring in. After bribery allegations, resignations, and an unopposed re-election of beleaguered FIFA chair Sepp Blatter, the organization finally looked to be getting itself back on track with an internal inquiry and a life-ban for the President of the Asian Football Confederation. But FIFA's proposed roadmap for tackling its integrity problems fell far short of the root and branch surgery that was necessary, and the recent withdrawal of Transparency International from the reform process demonstrates that the FIFA leadership still don't understand the basic principles of ethics management. Students of corporate responsibility need no better case study of how to get it all so wrong.

5. Raj Rajaratnam's insider trading trial
No list of corporate responsibility stories is complete without a big fish being caught. In 2010 we saw the sacking of HP CEO Mark Hurd for expense claims fraud. This year, we had a two-for-price-of-one bonanza with the trial of former hedge fund boss Raj Rajaratnam giving us a guilty verdict, 11 years in jail and a $10m fine for insider trading .... plus the charging of his friend and former McKinsey head Rajat Gupta with securities fraud for passing on insider information to Rajaratnam. As the New York Times said: "it was the longest-ever prison sentence for insider trading, [and] a watershed moment in the government’s aggressive two-year campaign to root out the illegal exchange of confidential information on Wall Street."

6. UBS and the not so 'rogue' trader
Another big story of personal ethical failure was the revelation back in September that UBS trader Kweku Adoboli had managed to lose the company a staggering $2.3bn in authorized trading. With a loss that big, this one makes the list on scale alone. But the real story here was not so much the ethical failings of Adoboli himself (though that clearly was one of the issues at play here), but the failure of UBS to manage the problem before it got out of hand, and the inherent risk-taking at the heart of the financial services industry. In desperate need to repair its flagging reputation, UBS subsequently accepted the resignation of its CEO and installed a new leader with a mandate to move into less risky and less complex investment banking.

7. Twitter revolutions and Blackberry riots
You know when your reputation is in good shape when you get associated with progressive political revolutions like the Arab Spring. After a government telecom crackdown in Egypt, companies like Twitter and Google found themselves center stage in the flourishing revolution. Switch to the ever declining fortunes of Canadian tech pioneers RIM and their Blackberry device, and all you get is an association with mindless looting in London. But whichever way you cut it, 2011 will indelibly be marked as the year that tech companies realized that for better or worse, social protest - and government response to protest - was an inevitable part of their business. Message to CR department: write a policy.

8. Michael Porter's popularization of 'Creating Shared Value'
It was certainly not the most popular article among CSR commentators, but Porter and Kramer's piece in the January issue of the Harvard Business Review on 'Creating Shared Value' has probably done more to get corporate responsibility issues into the boardroom than anything else written this year. Sure, it's simplistic, derivative, and takes cheap shots at a version of CSR that most us don't even recognize. But it's also compelling, endearingly positive, and says a lot of things that most of us have been trying to say for years without anyone taking much notice. Plus it couldn't be more prescient with its "capitalism is under siege" motif. Oh, and Michael Porter said it. So it must be true. Take it from us, CSV is here to stay.

9. Facebook's privacy adventures
There was little doubt back in January that Facebook would probably be hitting a whole bunch of corporate responsibility snags during the year. Once you get so big and popular, it is inevitable that the critics will start sharpening their knives. Greenpeace pushed hard on the coal powered energy issue and eventually scored a well-earned success. But the big issue dogging Facebook in 2011 was privacy. The tech giant wasn't alone since privacy and security continued to afflict a number of companies especially with the shift to cloud computing. But Facebook's privacy battles stand out simply because they affect so many of us and therefore mark the front line of the personal privacy battles with tech companies and regulators. Remarkably, despite a surge of criticism the company initially managed to stave off too big a hit on its business during the year. But last month's settlement with US regulators saw Facebook accused of "unfair and deceptive practices" and resulted in the company facing an extraordinary obligation to submit to independent privacy audits for the next 20 years. And late in December the Irish data protection commissioner gave Facebook 6 months to comply with a raft of new privacy measures for all of its non US and Canadian users. As a result the company has started adopting a far more conciliatory tone with its critics but the road ahead will be marked by yet more battles as we gradually move to some kind of a post-privacy future.

10. The tar sands failed ethical makeover
The year started with the Canadian Environment Minister seeking to make the seemingly indefensible case that the tar sands were an ethical source of oil because they came from a democratic country that respected human rights. The argument was designed to influence US and European policy makers in the run up to critical energy decisions during 2011 such as the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline plan which was designed to bring oil sands crude directly into the US, and the European Commission's deliberations over whether to label tar sands oil as a "dirty fuel" due to its higher carbon intensity. So far the Canadian government and the oil sands producers have failed to win the argument with the Keystone decision being postponed by President Obama and the EC approving the dirty fuel label, which also then attracted further backing from a similar initiative in the State of California. Recently the story has spiraled into the more absurd territory of a banana boycott. The announcement by fruit company Chiquita to reduce their use of tar sands oil in its fleet sparked a concerted campaign by to boycott Chiquita for discriminating against Canada's "ethical oil". You couldn't make this stuff up.

Looking at the two stories book-ending our top ten - the seriousness of a world of nuclear disaster and increasingly dirty sources of conventional energy (such as the tar sands and gas fracking) - not to mention the erosion of privacy, a crisis in capitalism and the never ending scourge of corruption that populate the middle order, it is clear that the corporate responsibility stakes have never been higher. Next year promises to be more of the same.

Photo by IAEA Imagebank. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ecolabels – it’s time for a change

Today, we have a guest post from Heather Mak from SustainAbility who is a co-author of the recently released report Signed, Sealed ... Delivered? which calls for a fundamentally new approach to eco-labeling. We asked Heather to tell us more....
Over 30 years ago, the Blue Angel label came out in Germany. It was significant – a label for consumers to recognize what was the more environmentally sound choice, backed by a standard and certification. Years later, many others followed – including many well-known ones such as Fairtrade, Marine Stewardship Council, Energy Star, Organic – and as of several days ago on the Ecolabel Index, the tally was at 424 labels. But what we needed in the past is not what we need any more. It's time for a change.

In a recent research piece from SustainAbility called Signed, Sealed…Delivered? that I co-authored with my colleague Patrin Watanatada – we looked at the value and challenges that businesses find in using certification and labelling as tools to improve economic, environmental and social outcomes across global value chains. 

What we have found is this - certification, labelling and the standards-setting organizations behind them have been pioneers in building a more sustainable economy. For businesses, they provide a credible, consensus-set reference point for collective action, access to expertise and networks, and can spur demand for certified or labelled goods. This is particularly the case in the B2B space, where labels and sustainable attributes are built into institutional purchasing agreements, such as within large companies or municipalities.

However, there are also a number of challenges. The traits that are the strengths of consensus-based standards – governance and inclusiveness — also pose challenges. For one, some businesses are seeking to advance sustainability as quickly as possible – but sometimes the agreement required in a consensus based model can slow things down. In addition, what is best for all stakeholders is not always perfect for sustainability – for example with many of the forestry standards it is a compromise between best available science and what the industry can handle. Also – the issues that are covered by specific standards may not be entirely appropriate for the business, so there are many cases where companies such as Innocent Drinks have developed their own standards for sustainable sourcing. As labels become more known in specific product categories, they also become a mere condition of entry, which has been the case with Energy Star in electronics. This does not suit most marketing departments who seek to differentiate, first and foremost.

Another challenge to labelling is that it has limits – in particular, limits to scale. Labels are mostly recognized and understood by a niche group of consumers – a typical consumer will not buy an ecolabelled product unless it has a clear “what’s in it for me?” for them. For example, organic products have done well because many believe it to offer them a significant health benefit. This is also why we see an increasing number of B2B standards and certifications that have no consumer facing element, including the Better Cotton Initiative and UTZ Certified for coffee and cocoa, which allows companies to focus solely on making the commodity more sustainable.

What then needs to happen? We think that the model of standards + certifications + on-pack ecolabels needs to evolve, where they are separated and each are used and recognized as part of a larger sustainability toolkit. Standards would provide an increasing, pre-competitive baseline, and brands could compete around this, such as what apparel manufacturers are planning with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s index. In concert, partnerships and collaboration with civil society would help to transform supply chains and consumer norms and behaviour, for example with Procter & Gamble’s Turn to 30 cold water washing campaign. Certification could take the form of civil society and government evolving to be more effective and efficient in developing ways to hold business accountable. And lastly, brands – which intentionally started off as trustmarks themselves – would be the main focal point with labels becoming a complementary “back of pack” instrument, such as the case with Method using Cradle to Cradle certification as a design tool to reinforce the brand’s design focus, and using the label for the 1% of its customers who are interested in it.

It’s a tall order to be sure, and a lot needs to happen before this vision can be realized. But in a quickly changing space as sustainability – it’s time that ecolabels had their change too.

Photo by fmg2001. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cleaning up the "ethical oil" mess

With Stephen Harper's government getting plenty of heat at the Durban climate conference over its decision to relegate Kyoto to the history books,  there is a lot of discussion back home about the merits or otherwise of presenting the Canadian oil sands as "ethical oil". It's something we discussed in the blog earlier in the year, but the XL pipeline decision process has kept the issue very much on the front burner. Factor in a controversial TV spot by comparing so-called "ethical" Canadian oil to "conflict" oil sourced from Saudi Arabia that funds oppression of women, and its no surprise to wind up in a heated debate

Yesterday, CBC, Canada's national broadcaster, featured a segment on ethical oil in its popular morning radio show The Current, and we were happy to be invited to participate, along with Kathryn Marshall, the spokesperson for and Jody Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has publicly come out against the tar sands.  You can hear the lively discussion, led by the impressive host Anna Maria Tremonti on the CBC website.

A colleague of ours in the law school here at York University, Stepan Wood, has blogged about the show and takes the time to expand upon some critical points that there was hardly even enough time to raise in the conversation itself. As he says:
"For one thing,[ethical oil's] narrow focus on human rights and the rule of law distracts attention from the massive environmental damage and energy consumption involved in extraction and processing of tar sands oil. For another, the claim that tar sands operations fully respect human rights is debatable, with numerous First Nations claiming that these operations impair their rights to clean water and a healthful environment. It is also hard to miss the xenophobic undertones of the Ethical Oil message–it is no coincidence that most of the countries targeted by the campaign are ethnically, culturally or religiously distinct from the white Canadian majority"
The bottom line, in which we and Stepan agree, is that Canada is very much not a leader when it comes to handling its responsibilities around oil extraction:
"To be a real leader Canada would have to show that it is genuinely committed to progress toward a post-carbon economy and improvement of the human rights records of Canadian companies overseas. This would include holding Canadian oil companies to the same high standards wherever they do business in the world. It is disingenuous to say that oil companies in Canada are ethical leaders if those very same companies are busily pumping oil and propping up those same repressive foreign regimes that the Ethical Oil campaign vilifies."
We don't expect that to happen any time soon, and in fact Canada has been content to be relegated very much to the margins of the Durban conference. When even China is criticizing you for setting a bad example, any claims that the country is a leader in providing "ethical oil" are only likely to fall on deaf ears.

Graphic by jfeathersmith. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

Monday, December 5, 2011

The tents are gone. But what about the ideas?

The tents are gone in New York’s Zuccotti Park and many other cities - including Toronto's St James Park. Daily we can follow how other Occupy sites in the US are closed down by more or less forceful police actions. By and large, one has to say that the movement as such is fading out, at least in its initial shape.

A good time then to assess two important questions. What, if anything, has the movement achieved? And, equally important: Where is it going from here?

As to the first question, even skeptics like Jeffrey Simpson from the Globe and Mail admit that the movement has put the finger on an important issue, namely the one of income inequality in most developed democracies. He has quite impressive numbers to make his case - that while Canada, thanks to a tighter regulated banking sector, has not felt the brunt of the current crisis quite as badly, the issue of inequality is no less a matter close to home. As Politico’s Ben Smith has shown, the mentioning of ‘income inequality’ in print and web media has quintupled over the course of the Occupy protests (from 91/week to over 500).

So there can be little doubt that the movement has raised long acknowledged issues and has given them a legitimate place in the public. That is a success - no doubt. Other than that though, I am quite pessimistic about the impact of the protests. Despite sympathizing with many of the concerns and this new way of political protest I am rather disillusioned because – by and large – most media outlets, print and TV alike, have not really taken the issue seriously. This certainly applies to the Canadian papers, and apart from TVO, I have a hard time to see some more engaging coverage on TV. Similar observations hold true to the US media – which nearly unanimously ignored Occupy Wall Street for the first couple of days. Even with lone voices such as Keith Olbermann’s on Current TV it is hard to mobilize a broader public when your message is somewhat obscured, watered down or ridiculed.

This leads to my second question of where the movement is going. A good measure of the validity of an argument is still the determination of its opposition. Pepper spraying peaceful students (UC Davis) and 84 years old ladies (Seattle), or fracturing the sculls of Iraq veterans (Oakland) are just the tip of that iceberg which is the violent response from public authorities in the United States.

The destruction of public spaces or safety concerns were popular arguments in Canada. My home is right next to St. James Park where Occupy Toronto took place. The park, a hangout for homeless people and drug consumers on normal days, has never been safer than during Occupy. And it were police vehicles that ploughed the turf into a brown mess two weeks ago.

Be that as it may, the reaction to the movement was decisive and uncompromising. Perhaps no one other than Frank Luntz, long time strategist for the Republican Party has put the underlying sentiments in better terms:
I'm so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I'm frightened to death... They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.
He said these words instructing Republican campaigners on how to clean up their language to immunize it against Occupy’s agenda. In my book, that endorsement just takes the cake.

The tension in a society that embraces both capitalism, free markets and private property on the one hand and democracy on the other has always been there. In the early decades of the 20th century we saw it spiraling out of control, leading to fascism or communism in Europe. In the US it led to the great depression, upon which Franklin Roosevelt took leadership in assigning a new role to government in bridging this inherent contradiction.

Capitalism is hampered by two things. First, its inequality of wealth distribution and second, its cyclical ups and downs. Both of which have always put those in a precarious spot who just had their labor to bring to the party of capitalism. The reason capitalism and democracy have now been able to coexist for some 60 years in many developed countries has to do with the fact that mechanisms of economic empowerment and redistribution had been implemented to mitigate against those two problems.

Keynes’ solution was that government addresses the problem, by guaranteeing basic welfare state provision and actively spending in times of economic downturn. The ‘neoliberal’ solution, linked to Reagan and Thatcher’s approach in the 1980s has been to turn labor into ‘mini-capitalists’: boosting home ownership and moving from tax-based to investment-based entitlement plans (e.g. retirement, life insurance) has given millions an active stake in the capitalist systems.

The financial crisis has pointed out the limits of both approaches. The reality of the Occupy movement is that it has been strongly driven by those ‘middle class’ Americans who fell into poverty in the last years. The movement only started now just because the effects of a rigged system are only now painfully palpable for a critical mass of people, as described in the current issue of the New Yorker.

The issue of inequality therefore is here to stay, never mind the preliminary seizure of Occupy protests this past autumn. Looking at the Republican presidential contest in the US offers a somber glimpse at the alternatives. Candidates with no interest in governing and no interest in the institutions that have provided some peace and prosperity for quite some time, dominate the debate. Even George W. Bush’s former speechwriter agonizes about that.  If democracies cannot secure a stake for those who just bring their labor to the market of the capitalist system, it has to come up with some other ‘mortar’ for keeping the social fabric together: religion, xenophobia or crude nationalism are just some of the offers we currently see.

This is not just a North American problem. The rise of the far Right in Europe – from The Netherlands to Hungary – or the militant protests in Greece point into the same direction. A system of majority based rule only works if the majority has some ‘stake’, some form of participation and real grounds of aspiration with regard to the 'system'. This is exactly what is eroding under our eyes. Occupy deserves credit for making these shifts manifest.

One of the sources of antagonism towards the movement was its strong anti-corporate bias. In some ways this preoccupation points towards one avenue of solutions. Heavily indebted governments or individuals disenfranchised by the financial system are not generating the solutions any more which we dearly relied on so far. If we ask for securing the buy-in of the working middle class in the capitalist system, a more active role falls to the corporate sector. In some ways one might argue that this demand has been well heard – the vociferous efforts to shut the movement down certainly allow this interpretation. The social responsibilities of business – beyond avoiding all these obvious scandals surfaced in the financial crisis – certainly extend now beyond pure philanthropy. Paying decent middle class wages, providing employment and affordable access to basic products and services is an imperative - provided we want to see an ongoing coexistence of basic forms of both democracy and free markets. It is in the ‘enlightened self interest’ of business to live up to these demands.

So yes, the tents are gone. But the core issue is here to stay. As is the struggle to address these them.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How many CSR experts are just cheats and plagiarists?

CSR experts, people that write about, research, and practice CSR day-in, day-out are a pretty responsible bunch, right? After all, who would listen to anyone talking about responsible business who they didn't think was, well ... responsible?

Uh, wrong. Unfortunately, if our recent experience is anything to go by, there are some decidedly irresponsible CSR experts out there.  Actually, worse than that; not just irresponsible, but flat-out cheats and plagiarists. And we're not just talking about the usual CSR snake-oil salesmen who are simply out to make a quick buck from some dishonest greenwashing. No, we're talking the supposed purveyors of something resembling objective truth - academics and journalists.

How do we know? Simple. In the last couple of months we've run into several glaring examples of so-called experts simply stealing our work and passing it off as their own. Consider this one that has only just come to light. Jaquelina Jimena, a journalist and CSR adviser, wrote a nice article in the Canadian Mining Journal back in 2009 titled "Is Corporate Engagement Possible Through CSR Blogs?" Well, we would say it's nice, because it is almost word-for-word copied from one of our own blog entries "Corporate Engagement through CSR Blogs", published the year before. She changes our use of "we" to "I" of course, but that is about it. The rest is almost entirely plagiarized from our post. Well, except the last paragraph, which we she didn't copy from us. But that's not her work either. It's directly stolen from a post from our fellow blogger Fabian Pattberg.

Jimena has published other pieces in the Canadian Mining Journal about CSR, all of which, as far we can tell, contain substantial portions of text just cut and pasted from other people's articles and websites. Our friends at Ethical Corporation are a particularly popular source, it seems. Of course, she claims on her LinkedIn page, to be a "professional journalist" as well as a CSR adviser and lecturer, with experience among others advising at the Global Reporting Initiative and Anglo-American.

Now, we're not saying that Jimena isn't an expert in CSR,or in her specialist field of stakeholder engagement and communication. But as a potential editor, employer, client, or reader of hers, would you really put your trust in someone who, from time to time, made a living by stealing other people's work?

It's not just journalists though. While plagiarism in academia is usually discussed in relation to students (and we have to say, this continues to be a big problem in the sector), there are no shortage of cheats standing at the front of the classroom too. Again, our own experience is instructive here.

A few months back, it came to our attention that an article published in the journal Management Decision under the title "Sustainability managers or rogue mid-managers? A typology of corporate sustainability managers" and suppposedly written by professors Tang, Robinson and Harvey, was in fact almost entirely plagiarized from a working paper written by Andy and one of our long time friends and collaborators, Wayne Visser. After someone had kindly pointed this out to us, we informed the journal who did some checking and then retracted the offending piece, acknowledging that "a large proportion" of the article had been copied from ours.

We also did a little further digging and discovered that one of the ostensible authors, Kevin Tang, had even plagiarized almost his entire PhD thesis. It took about 5 minutes to find this out given that he'd copied almost word for word Jennifer Lynes' dissertation about environmental commitment in the airline industry which was easily available on-line. So we informed Lynes (who was suitably shocked) and Bond University in Australia, who had awarded Tang's PhD. They've now taken the online version of Tang's PhD down and informed us that a thorough investigation into the allegations is underway. So you can't check now this one yourself, but believe us, it is a cut-and-dried case of plagiarism, even down to the personal acknowledgments page!

We'd love to believe that these are just isolated incidents, but realistically we think it is just the tip of the iceberg. Both of these cases came to light by accident just in the last few weeks and we only noticed them because they were rip-offs of our own work. Who else is blissfully unaware of getting their CSR research stolen by a so-called expert? And how many other CSR experts are out there passing off someone else's work as their own that we haven't discovered yet?

Academia certainly has been getting into all sorts of cheating scandals recently. Earlier in the year we witnessed the forced resignation of the German Secretary of Defence after revelations of his plagiarized PhD thesis. A few weeks ago, an investigation confirmed that  the noted psychologist Diederik Stapel, the former Dean of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, had falsified data and made up entire experiments over the course of the past decade. Unethical journalism has also been in the news of late, especially around the News International phone hacking scandal. Both professions are clearly in need of clean-up.

At the moment, none of these more high profile scandals have been concerned with CSR experts. Not yet, anyway. But if our experience is anything to go by, it's probably just a matter of time.

Photo by loop_oh (Robert Ganzer). Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

Friday, November 18, 2011

Happy 2 months birthday, OWS!

Its two months today that Occupy Wall Street had occupied Zuccotti Park in New York. And after strong reluctance from the big media (it took most of big US networks more than a week to cover the story) the movement has successfully occupied the news channels for the last weeks.

New York’s mayor duly used the two month anniversary of the movement to finally evict them from their initial site. Ironically though, that decision seems to just have added that other bit of publicity the movement could handily use. By the time of writing, between 15,000 and 35,000 people, depending whose estimate you want to believe, are currently marching in the streets of New York. Mike Bloomberg still does not disappoint as the most effective PR agent of the Occupy movement.

I had a strange déjà vu today when stumbling over one bit of news. Obviously, the evicted protesters in New York are flocking to church buildings to get food and shelter, and to be secure from police harassment. The last time when churches were the only safe haven for civil unrest was when people in East Germany took to the streets in the summer of 1989. Those famous ‘Monday demonstrations’ and their organization started in churches (note: this was before facebook and twitter). By November 9th that year, the wall had finally fallen. And with it the regime that held the country in its grip for some 40 years.

Certainly in Toronto, where the Occupy movement has camped in St. James Park, co-owned by the Anglican Church, a similar pattern is visible. Even though support currently seem to falter, initially the church was one of the crucial supporters of the protest, supplying them with vital access to amenities.

This historical parallel is more than just a co-incidence. Like the demonstrations in 1989, the Occupy movement is only loosely organized, has some rather sweeping demands and has little sense of translating their agenda into the institutional setting of how our society is governed. All they have is a legitimate issue. They are concerned with the fact that governments no longer represent the people, the ‘99%’, and that wealth is blatantly unfairly distributed. It all sounds so familiar to me, up the chants to remain non violent by OWS protesters, very much like the famous ‘Keine Gewalt’ (‘no violence’) choruses which became the signature slogan of East German protestors 22 years ago.

Like communism, the current form of capitalism has created a governance system, where some very few are perceived to control societies and where large parts of the population feel disenfranchised and curtailed in many ways.

The crucial difference to today’s US seems to be that in most US cities the reaction of the police is rather uncompromising and violent. Events in Oakland or the pepper spraying of an 84 year old lady in Seattle are just a tip of the iceberg. In some ways the starkest prove that these protestors have a point is the remarkable police presence. When I visited Zuccotti Park in late October my guess would be that the ratio of police to protesters was at least 2:1.

If it is true that OWS is ‘not productive’ (Michael Bloomberg), why do we need so many police there? The fear of the establishment is palpable. New York just serves as the test tube for this: the Mayor Bloomberg, himself firmly in the ‘1%’, symbolizes the seizure of corporate interests of the political process. To become the ‘democratically’ elected mayor he spent $250m out of his private wealth.

Drawing the parallel to the fall of communism 22 years ago, one big difference seems to be that there is no ‘Gorbachev’ figure. There is no strong, prominent, visible leader on the other side, who understands the legitimacy of the issues and, as Michael Gorbachev at the time, refuses to use the power at his disposal to crush this movement.

This said though, some of the ‘1%’ understand the movement and take it seriously. As business school professors, we occasionally have to go to events where we rub shoulders with these guys. Just yesterday, I was totally flabbergasted listening to one of Canada’s real estate tycoons arguing that this movement is serious and here to stay and that it is something business leaders better take seriously.

It is difficult to predict where this movement is going. At the moment, the fact that it has stayed non-violent has certainly helped to make people sympathize with it that do not ordinarily go out on the streets demonstrating. The other element is the core issue of the movement. It seems that the blatant inequality of wealth and the co-optation of governments by business interests are the common denominator of the protests.

In some ways we have nothing to add to our earlier comments. There are strong parallels between the green movement starting off in the 1970s with pretty similar features. David McTaggart and the other founders of Greenpeace where hardly taken seriously by the establishment back then. But we all know which impact that movement had on politics, business and civil society.

So again, Happy Birthday Occupy Wall Street! And many happy returns!
Photo by David Shankbone, reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why is communication such a big deal for CSR?

Corporate social responsibility often provokes a lot of debate. But one thing that most people seem to be agreed on is the necessity of good communications. Of course, what makes for "good" communications is not so clear cut. Should companies engage in dialogue and debate with their stakeholders? How do you communicate "authentically" with consumers around social issues? And what do employees expects or want in terms of internal communication around CSR? These are some of the questions occupying minds rights now, so it has been interesting to spend the last couple of weeks exploring some of the challenges around the intersection of CSR and communication, both from a research and practice perspective. Not that this has necessarily brought me any closer to the right answers, but I think it has helped a lot in clarifying what the right questions might be.

Last week I keynoted the 1st International CSR Communication conference in Amsterdam, NL, a primarily research conference that also featured a lot of practitioner participants. This was preceded by a doctoral workshop on CSR and communication research where budding PhD students sought to test out their ideas, theories, and methods with experienced researchers like myself and Mette Morsing from Copenhagen Business School. Then, this week I keynoted another pretty unique conference - a mixed practitioner/research conference in Copenhagen on CSR and social media titled "Social media for social purposes".

Suddenly it seems that the communications challenges in CSR are getting a lot of attention. Certainly they are beginning to attract a lot of research activity, whether from management researchers, communications scientists, or media analysts. There is some really interesting stuff happening out there, much of it making use of the new online data that is all around us. I've been impressed by some of the datasets that are being put together using Tweets, blogs, YouTube videos, media articles, and a variety of online texts and reports. The possibilities of analyzing "big data" around online CSR communication are growing all the time. But also, it is clear that we need more than just huge amounts of data - we also need to be asking the right questions.

Consider this. McDonald's, which has been a pioneer in blogging about its CSR practices through its Values in Practice blog, has recorded the following stats from January - November 2011:

Number of posts: 16.
Average number of comments per post: 0.5
Average number of tweets per post: 1.2
Average number of Facebook likes per post: 3.1
Average number of shares per post: 3.8

Now consider this. McDonald's has more than 11m people who have "liked" the company's main Facebook page. That's a lot of people who don't seem to be much interested in what is happening over at their CSR blog. Clearly something is up. CSR experts are saying that companies need to engage in dialogue with their stakeholders. So are McDonald's stakeholders actually not interested in dialogue? Is the way the company is communicating not relevant for them? Is the company blocking interacting on some way or is one way communication actually effective here?

As I say, we don't really have the answers to these sorts of questions yet, but the field is moving fast and through network, discourse, and sentiment analysis, for example, researchers are getting a better understanding of how and why people respond to CSR communications in particular ways.... and what this all means for the society we live in today. There is a long way to go, but it looks like its going to be an exciting and informative journey.


Photo by joshfassbind. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hannah Arendt And The Banality of (Corporate) Evil

In this world of ongoing financial turmoil and unrest against the current form of capitalism it is interesting to see how the search for intellectual resources to fuel our thinking about a changed world is taking us to new shores.

This week, as part of the Holocaust Education Week, an exhibition about the philosopher Hannah Arendt started in Toronto. In many ways, this could not have been a timelier moment to have her heritage reinvigorated. Arendt is a staple in many discussions over 20th century history and philosophy. Of Jewish origin, born in Germany in 1906, she emigrated to the US during the Nazi regime and became a vocal analyst on how oppression, totalitarianism and violence affects the individual and what the conditions and options of resistance are.

Now much of this seems to be a far cry from the life of many of us in the 21st century. But it gets much more colorful if we add Arendt’s voice audible in later phases of her work: most notably, her book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in the 1960s. It is here where the famous phrase of the ‘banality of evil’ was coined. It adumbrates the fact that Eichmann – in today’s lingo the ‘logistics-zsar’ of the holocaust – talked about his ‘job’ in his trial in Israel just like any Fed-Ex or UPS manager would describe her/his work today. It was just about ‘getting the job done’. That he was managing a ‘supply chain’ that started in ordinary people’s home and ended in a gas chamber was just a minute detail for Eichmann – otherwise a (more or less) faithful husband and a loving father of four. It was just a slight ethical glitch that his nine-to-five-job happened to be in the business of delivering some six million people to the gas chambers as smooth, efficient and cost-effective as possible. And boy, he was good at that!

Here is where Hannah Arendt’s unique vantage point kicks in: she was not so much interested in the individual’s guilt, evilness or criminal inclinations. In fact she thought that those aspects were rather marginal. The evil of Eichmann’s actions was in fact ‘banal’ as it occurred to amount just to some ‘executive decisions’ of an individual who never questioned the ethical nature of the wider organization he was operating in.

It is indeed a rather contemporary perspective. We are in the middle of a ‘financial crisis’ which has dominated our lives and attention now for more than three years. The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests have taken over globally and – despite a cacophonic range of claims – have highlighted the fact that our current economic and political system produces outcomes that are patently unethical by most available standards of judgment. And apart from Bernie Madoff or Raj Rajaratnam we had a hard time to attribute this mess to any particular individual.

Hannah Arendt’s legacy speaks to the fact that ethical agency of individuals is intricately interwoven and embedded in the social systems in which they are enacted. Fine. Maybe not that much of a spectacular finding, some of us might think. But it nevertheless raises the question of how ethical the systems are in which we live and work. What I like about Arendt is that she was not just stopping to blame the specific historical contingencies of the holocaust. It was never about just taking fascism, the Nazis or, for that matter, Germany as a culprit to task. Her central analytic take-away was that societies are able to ‘rationalize’ all sorts of atrocities. Consequently, in the 1970s, when the creeping ecological destruction of our planet reared its first signs of appearance, she talked about the capitalist system as a form of ‘economic totalitarianism’ which rationalizes the destruction of the planet. She plainly coined it as ‘eco-cide’ (as a pun on ‘genocide’).

In the current situation, Arendt’s vantage point highlights many of the questions, the ‘Occupy...’ movement elucidates. These are ongoing questions which will, it has to be said, occupy us a little longer than this blog can last. However, Arendt also raises the important question (initially with regard to her study of Adolf Eichmann):
‘The moment you come to the individual person, the question to be raised is no longer, how did this system function, but why did the defendant become a functionary of this organization?’
This is in some ways the more compelling question. How do we individually act in a system that, by many people’s conviction, has created blatant inequality, ecological destruction, and a public largely disenfranchised from democratic decision making? Arendt in this sense is a master optician alerting us to the ‘grey zones’ of human ethical existence. But also lets us never get off the hook in terms of questioning our role in the wider societal or organizational contexts we are embedded in.

Monday night in Toronto the opening of the ‘Hannah Arendt Denkraum’ (= thinking space) took place. In some ways it was an event riddled by irony. Located in the German Consulate it appeared, in language and in ritual, like yet another atonement for the empirical backdrop of Arendt’s work. This contextualization in some ways could not be further from Arendt’s initial ideas. Equally ironic, the speaker rather skillfully highlighted the general implications of Arendt’s work, and its damning view of contemporary capitalism etc. – while the entire event was sponsored by the German multinational Miele whose executives were rather uncomfortably clinging on to their wine glasses hoping the speech would be over rather sooner than later. What all those millionaire-sponsors of the Holocaust Education Week, listening to a fairly astute reading of Arendt’s anti-capitalist messages were thinking – I could hardly guess. I am very sure though what Arendt - hardly ever photographed without a cigarette in her mouth - would have thought of the oppressive North American 'ethics' on smoking indoors if she would have ever dared to light a fag on this event in her honour in the German Consulate...

The picture on top is from the 'Hannah Arendt Denkraum' exhibition by ovit, the picture below was taken from G4Gti - all reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why Occupy Wall Street should occupy corporate leaders' minds

This weekend, the Occupy Wall Street protest will go global. Protests, marches and occupations are planned across the world, with almost a thousand events across every continent scheduled to go ahead on October 15th. Here in Toronto, the financial district around Bay Street is preparing for an occupation that has so far garnered more than 9000 followers on Facebook. In London, social media sites have registered more than 15000 followers for the planned occupation of the London Stock Exchange. Similar smaller scale events are in the offing from everywhere from Alaska to Auckland. Whatever the success of these protests, it is remarkable the speed at which a local event in New York which was hardly reported on two weeks ago, has now been turned into a global movement.

Although the range of issues and demands of the Occupy Wall Street campaign and its various international incarnations are many and diverse, they share a strong single point of focus. The financial sector is very much the villain here. This is in some contrast to the movement that the current events most parallel, the anti-globalization protests that took to the streets in late 1990s and early 2000s, exemplified best by the Battle in Seattle in 1999. At that time, although many of the issues were the same as those receiving attention now, the main point of focus was international finance and trade organizations such as the WTO and the IMF, and meetings of political leaders such as the G8 were major targets. Now, by occupying the financial centers of major cities, the focus is much tighter. The financial sector is public enemy no.1.

In many respects, this is not too surprising. Economies across much of the developed world have been in a constant state of crisis for the past three years. Austerity measures are biting hard. Unemployment is up. And a significant proportion of society feels excluded, exploited, and ready for an alternative. The financial sector is an obvious target because it is here that the systemic risks have been created, and it is here that so much of taxpayers money has ended up, shoring up institutions that are too big to fail. When these same organizations continue to post substantial profits, pay out huge bonuses and generally carry on as before, it is fairly predictable that they will become the focus of so much public ire.

Much of the initial response to Occupy Wall Street has been dismissive. The financial sector, which must be getting quite used to being the bad guy these days, has hardly raised a murmur in response. As of yet, we haven't seen a single press release on the events from major financial services organizations such as Bank of America, Barclays, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, or anyone else. Don't business leaders have anything to say about what's going on?  Don't they want to be part of the conversation? Or are they just so concerned that anything they say will just be ridiculed by the protesters, or simply set them up as even more of a fall guy, that they are fearful of trying to put their position across in public?

But big business, and big finance in particular, needs to take this seriously. Here's why.

First, because governments are looking to be responsive and populist, especially with elections around the corner in the US. That could mean tighter controls, less freedom and more regulation. As even Dominic Barton of McKinsey made clear in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year, "Business leaders face a choice: They can reform the system, or watch as the government exerts control ... there is growing concern that if the fundamental issues revealed in the crisis remain unaddressed and the system fails again, the social contract between the capitalist system and the citizenry may truly rupture, with unpredictable but severely damaging results." Better regulation might fix some of these problems, but knee-jerk regulation, borne of anti-corporate prejudice is not going to be the best fix for the capitalist system, and not necessarily the one that we need.

Second, because the protests create a great opportunity for collective action on the part of business. Problems of financial risk, executive pay and corporate lobbying aren't going to be fixed by individual company initiatives, or even by national government regulation. If one firm or one country reduces its attractiveness by, for example, controlling pay, then talent will likely migrate to more rewarding shores. If one company puts a limit on government influence, then the attention of policy makers will simply be taken up by its competitors. That's the savage logic of the global marketplace. The best recipe for meaningful change is collective action across an entire industry. Like a financial sector executive pay protocol. Or a banking industry code of practice on political influence. But to be effective these would need to include government and civil society participation and include effective monitoring and sanctions across borders. No one is pretending this wouldn't require a huge effort. But crises of trust, like the current protests, could be the context that is needed for collective action such as this to arise and prosper.

Third, because these protests clearly signal that for some proportion of the population, all the money, time and effort expended on CSR simply isn't working. And spending more isn't going to make a difference. These people are looking for a change in the system, in the rules that govern business and it's relationship with government.They're looking for more accountability, less political influence, and if their demands are for better corporate citizenship, they mean the kind of citizenship where you pay your fair share of taxes and don't just simply offshore when it suits you. This requires a very different approach to CSR than the one now predominant in the corporate sector. It means fixing attention on how to devise better rules, not how to behave better within the existing rules.

The challenge here, clearly, is a big one. Perhaps then it is no surprise that corporate leaders have been content so far to just cover their ears and hope it all blows over. But there are fundamental issues that need addressing at the heart of our model of global capitalism. Occupying Wall Street, Bay Street, or the City of London may not be any kind of solution, but that does not mean it should just be dismissed either. Business leaders would be foolish not to see this as an opportunity to create an improved system of capitalism that serves us all better.

Photo by david_shankbone. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence 

Friday, October 7, 2011

What the hype around Steve Jobs really says about us

Let me confess this right upfront: I have never been an avid user of Apple’s products. I briefly owned an iPod in the mid 2000s but when it fell into my toilet (true!) one day I didn't really miss it. So writing about Steve Jobs this week feels a little like an atheist writing an obituary for the pope.

This said though, the remarkable expressions of sympathy for Steve Jobs’ untimely death wasn’t lost on me. They are extraordinary in number (2.5m tweets in the first 13 hours), source (e.g. Obama) and nature. It all reminds me a little of what happened when Princess Diana or JFK died, I guess. The question here of course is: what is it that causes millions of people to respond so emotionally and affectionately to the death of this business tycoon?

It is obvious that most of the usual features of these icons of popular culture do not really apply to Jobs. He was hardly a charismatic business leader with big PR value such as Richard Branson (Virgin) or Jack Welch (GE). In fact, many of his co-workers actually describe him as rather awkward and geeky in personal interactions. It also can’t be his generosity to society which has given business leaders such as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet some more charisma these days: up to now Steve Jobs has only engaged rather reluctantly in charity and so far has refused to join Gates’ initiative to pledge large parts of his personal wealth (at least $6.5bn) to social causes.

Talking of responsible business practices, in fact there might be a group of people who are actually a tad gleeful about seeing Jobs go: Chinese factory workers in Suzhou poisoned two years ago by toxic chemicals at Apple’s touchscreen factory wrote to Jobs directly, asking for his help in getting medical care and compensation for their illnesses and lost work time. Jobs never even cared to reply.

Much of the hype focuses on his ‘vision’, his ‘innovation’, his ‘genius’ etc. But is that really true? One of the first ‘inventions’ credited to Steve Jobs – the computer mouse and the clickable workspace (later adopted by Microsoft Windows) were initially invented at the Xerox PARC laboratories in the late 1970s. Jobs saw these ideas there first, and then just went on to commercialize them. All in all, Apple in this sense lives with ‘creation myth’, as Malcolm Gladwell recently put it.

Was it his business acumen? Maybe, but even here, until he was fired from Apple in 1985 the Macintosh PC was a niche product. It was rather Bill Gates who played that phase of the game to perfection. And as Robert Reich points out in Supercapitalism (Chapter 2) Steve Jobs and the entire Silicon Valley phenomenon was by no means initiated by all that ‘American entrepreneurship’ or ‘True spirit of modern capitalism’ which is now touted on all the American TV networks reminiscing about Jobs’ life. The American IT boom was initiated mostly by whopping defence contracts from the Pentagon and NASA – i.e. good old ‘socialist’ government money – in a quest to keep up in the cold war arms race in the 1970s and 80s.

So – what is it really? At a time when IT has become a key instrument not just for work but for most areas of our life many of us ‘consumers’ are pretty gutted by the quality of products we are ‘forced’ to use. Who of us has not despaired over the dismal quality of his Office software or the unreliability of his Windows browser? Who among us has not gone ballistic at the slow speed of their hardware at times or been incensed that the next ‘generation’ of software now forces us to by yet another, faster computer? Or utterly despaired when ploughing through an incomprehensible user manual or trying to install the new TV or some software on the PC for the umpteenth time?

One thing Steve Jobs obviously had understood is this: that consumers are actually happy when they use products that are suited to them: easy to operate, fun to use, opening new experiences or simply making life easier. Apple’s recent products - and the real beacons of Jobs’ fame and commercial success - are different in this one aspect: they put the user and his preferences first. And even as a heathen in the church of Apple followers I am ready to admit that the iPhone or the iPad provide an ergonomics and a scope of service which is really phenomenal. Especially compared to what is otherwise on offer.

So, in somewhat cynical terms, what is the real regret about Jobs’ untimely death? We will miss a CEO who put consumer interests first. It is that simple. While this should be a normal thing in a free market economy the reaction to Jobs’ death in my reading just goes to show how modest we have become as consumers. This is particularly true in the world of IT, where we rely in many areas on just one monopolist (Microsoft). Who has treated us over the years not exactly well. To a degree that the one entrepreneur, who really gave us our money’s worth, who offered us products and services which really add value to our life - we no longer see this as the normal result of free consumer choice in a competitive market, but as a gift bequeathed to us by a god-like figure of divine foresight, clairvoyance and care. St. Steve, as it were.
Artwork by Cea, reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

UBS and that missing $2.3bn: Rogue trader, rogue company or rogue industry?

Revelations last week that UBS, the Swiss-based global financial services company, had shipped close to $2.3bn due to "unauthorized trading" in its London investment banking division focused intense media speculation on the derivatives trader at the heart of the scandal, Kweku Adoboli. Earning himself the now familiar epithet of the "rogue trader", Adoboli also claimed the dubious honor of a position at number 3 in the all time Rogue Trader Top 10, placing well behind Jérôme Kerviel at number 1 (with nearly $7bn in losses), but close to Yasuo Hamanaka at number 2 ($2.6 bn) and well in front of Nick Leeson at number 4 ($1.3bn). Like those before him, Adoboli's losses have had grave repercussions for his employer and for the bank's stakeholders. UBS's share price dropped by 10% after the losses were reported, and with almost the entire quarterly earnings of the firm wiped out, the bank is reportedly aiming to accelerate a major restructuring of its business, involving thousands of job losses. Meanwhile UBS was quick to reassure its well-heeled customers that none of their money was at risk, though a downswing in the bank's reputation and overall trust levels seems inevitable.

The narrative of the "rogue trader" is a seductive one in making sense of events like those at UBS. A lone trader going off the rails, committing fraud to make himself rich - what could be a simpler explanation? But as with Kerviel, Leeson and others before him, Adoboli does not appear to have been seeking to profit directly from the unauthorized trades (although clearly would benefit indirectly in terms of a higher bonus if the gamble paid off). In reality it was more a case of taking an illegal route to try and make the firm more money. Likewise, Adoboli hardly fits the stereotype of the evil genius that many will picture when thinking of a rogue trader. By all accounts the Ghanaian born, 31 year old seems to be pretty unremarkable.  He likes art and photography. He's "very polite", "very loyal" to his employers a "really nice guy" according to the neighbors, even his former landlord speaks highly of him. He went to private school and graduated from a respectable university (Full disclosure: actually he studied at the University of Nottingham, and graduated whilst Crane and Matten were teaching there - but did not, we might add, attend our ethics class). Clearly, a major share of the blame for UBS's losses must rest of the person who cooked the books to keep his spiraling losses secret. But he's hardly much of a rogue, it has to be said.

So where does the rest of the blame lie? UBS itself certainly has to take a large proportion of the responsibility. After all, what kind of financial institution doesn't realize that one of its employees is taking such wildly speculative positions and then cooking the books to hide it? Adobodi appears to have been making some unauthorized trades since 2008. In the end it was the trader himself who blew the whistle on his activities, not those who were responsible for exercising financial control. Internal and external auditing, back office controls, risk management, compliance -aren't they supposed to stop this kind of thing happening? Moody's the rating agency is belatedly pointing at "ongoing weaknesses" in the bank's risk management."We have continued to express concerns with regards to the ability of management to develop a robust risk culture and effective control framework," the agency said in the aftermath of the last week's disclosures. But this is hardly news for a bank like UBS that lost $37bn in the subprime mortgage crisis and had to be bailed out by Swiss taxpayers.

Myret Zaki, the author of a best-selling book on the bank has presented the situation as "a never-ending story repeating itself". "I'm not surprised at all about this," she told the UK newspaper the Telegraph "[UBS CEO] Oswald Grubel kept advocating an increase in risk-taking. When you have a CEO talking like that, you are not in a climate where you feel restricted, as a trader. He was on the side of continuing to make money on the markets, even though wealth management was employing 30pc fewer staff for double the profitability." Others, such as Richard Abbey, the senior managing director of financial investigations at Kroll, point to UBS's recent downsizing as a factor: "It's no coincidence that after downsizing and lay-offs these type of losses are more common. There may not be enough people to physically control checks and balances. It may be institutions are too reliant on computer controls and they are the easiest to bypass." In many respects then this was a time bomb waiting to go off - with Adobodi as much the symptom as the cause. This could be "rogue bank" just as much as "rogue trader".

Taking a broader perspective on the scandal, maybe we don't need to stop the blame game at Adobodi  and UBS. As with the recent financial crisis, perhaps this is also a deeper rooted problem of the financial services industry as a whole. According to the Telegraph, "unauthorized" trading could be considerably more widespread than the occasional huge rogue trader incident suggests: "experts and insiders warn the amount of risky unauthorised trading is difficult to quantify and often not brought to the public eye unless losses are huge enough to be announced". The paper goes on to quote a "senior trader" at a London bank: "People are fired every year for having stuff on their book that they shouldn't. All the banks tend to know what has happened and why someone has left, but it doesn't get publicised. It's usually only a couple of million bucks." So while Adobodi may be number 3 in the rogue trader top 10, we never even get to hear about all those entries lower down the charts. Jérôme Kerviel, who's still there at the top of the list has suggested that companies like Société Générale, his then employer, may even tacitly endorse such trades as long as they are making the bank money. It's only when they start registering huge losses that the controls really kick in. As even the Wall Street Journal recently quipped: "what do you call a 'rogue' trader who makes $2 billion? A Managing Director!" These may of course be little more than jokes, rumors and groundless accusations. But clearly the financial services industry has a major task ahead of it to clean up its reputation and regain the trust of its stakeholders. The events at UBS are going to make that task even harder now. We don't just have a rogue trader on our hands. We have a rogue industry.

Photo by Ahmad Nawawi. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Has 9/11 changed business ethics?

I can’t believe I just wrote this headline. Looking at today’s punch lines in North American papers or on TV, you can get the impression that 9/11 was the all defining event of the new millennium. And that pretty much nothing in the world has remained the same ever since.
There is a lot of hyperbole out there these days. As shocking as 9/11 appeared at the time the last decade has seen – in terms of loss of life or any other criteria we want to apply – much worse tragedies, injustices and atrocities. This includes a number of ways in which America and its allies have responded to 9/11 (8,500 American soldiers and contractors killed, 103.000 Iraqi civilians killed, according to today’s New York Times).
World politics aside – and there are more gifted minds and eloquent writers out there to address those issues – it’s still worth just engaging in this little thought experiment. So let’s play around with this thought for a second: if 9/11 is the day ‘that changed everything’ – what has its effect been on the niche of the world we are commenting on in this blog? Here are some thoughts off the cuff.

Blurring lines between the public and the private. 9/11 has given many governments new legitimacy in redefing the public and the private in their relation to their citizens. Email, phone conversations, financial records, tax statements are just prominent examples where governments have attempted to intrude the privacy of citizens – all of course in the name of fighting ‘the war on terror’. Conspicuously, many of this information is administered by private companies. Unsurprisingly, we then see that electronic privacy, identity protection and a host of other privacy issues have turned in ethical dilemmas for private business. Arguably, many of the ethical issues here would be on the agenda without 9/11 though, as the main driver of ethical contestation is the mere fact that advances in information technology have made those new ways of information gathering possible in the first place.

New business opportunities. Looking at how America and its allies have approached the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it is evident that we have seen a surge in business opportunities for private military contractors, mercenary companies and security providers. As the Wall Street Journal investigation ‘Top Secret America’ has highlighted this also pertains to intelligence gathering, counterterrorism or homeland security. This all has propelled private business in a sphere traditionally occupied by governments and other – at least on paper – publicly and democratically accountable societal actors. Again, we can legitimately ask in how far this is really triggered by 9/11. As Naomi Klein has pointed out (‘The Shock Doctrine, Chapter 14), it was exactly on September 10, 2001, when Donald Rumsfeld held a Town Hall Meeting in the Pentagon announcing far flung privatization of military operations leading CNN to the headline on the very eve of 9/11: ‘Defence Secretary Declares War on the Pentagon’s Bureaucracy’! In this sense then 9/11 might have accelerated these developments and provided some much needed legitimacy – but the underlying ideas and intentions were hardly new.

Soaring government deficits. The current debate on government deficits in the US, UK and elsewhere is often directly linked to the so-called financial crisis of 2008/9. This however overlooks the fact that due to the ‘response’ to 9/11 certainly the US and the UK, had already heavily overstretched their budgets. The New York Times today cites a figure of $1.6trillion in costs for just the wars post-9/11. In some ways one could even argue that due to the constant distraction of two wars the looming financial disaster could grow largely unnoticed by governmental scrutiny. And the need to finance those wars made it all too tempting to keep interest rates low - with the widely known effects on cheap credit in America. As a result we now see more or less in all Western democracies an increase slashing of classic welfare state provision. As many commentators have pointed out retreating governmental provision of health, education or other public services has been a key driver in a shifting expectation towards business in engaging in these arenas – the UK probably being the best laboratory to substantiate that thesis.

New issues in diversity and discrimination. Certainly in the US, 9/11 has heightened scepticism towards all things Muslim. This is certainly reflected in tightened immigration laws and the general perception of the public. Conspicuously, there is relatively little case evidence that this has also played out in business. While gender or sexual orientation have been well documented there is only scant evidence of actual discrimination on the basis of being of Muslim faith. This may, however, be more credited to the fairly palpable ‘Teflon’ of political correctness with which those topics have been touched since then in business.

A multipolar world and the rise of China and India. One of the most interesting developments in the US has been its heightened restrictions on immigration of highly educated young people including those graduating from American universities. This has had a number of implications for business both in the US and the rest of the world. Most obvious are changes in those industries where America is still quite advanced, most notably IT, electronics and software. All these industries have in the past and still at present do rely heavily on an influx of foreign-born professionals. While it has become more difficult to hire this talent at home, places such as India have immensely benefited from this. Much of the software development and business process outsourcing of leading US companies is now done in Bangalore, Hyderabad or Mumbai. In this sense, with the US becoming less open to a free movement of people we see that this has benefited other parts of the global economy. This has also been visible in University education. Countries such as the UK, Canada or Australia have seen a surge in international students who found their ambition to study in the US rendered impossible after 9/11.
For business ethics this move towards a world where the US in many fields has lost a pole position is quite interesting. With growing business interests in emerging economies we see, at the same time, an interest in business responsibilities and ethics growing in these parts of the globe. We can certainly argue that the last decade has seen much stronger influence and relevance of other areas of the globe. Business ethics, 30 years ago, was by and large an American subject. This is no longer the case today.

Arguably, much of the changes we discuss here have a fairly tenuous link to 9/11 as such. The events had their most severe impacts on ethics in government, warfare, international relations and how governments have (dis-)respected basic human rights since then. Some of it, as we think, has had a trickle-down effect on business. But maybe the gist of it is still best summarized by commodity trader Carlton Brown in the movie The Corporation: ‘In devastation, there is opportunity!’

Photo by JessyeAnne, reproduced under the Creative Commons licence.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lessons in politics from Starbucks: sign of the times or storm in a coffee cup?

Drip, latte, cappuccino, espresso, frappuccino; short, tall, grande, venti, trenta. Starbucks, the international coffee chain is great at giving choice in getting our daily dose of java. But what about campaign contributions or no contributions? Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue in the same way, but that is the stark choice that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is now offering US politicians in the face of the country's ongoing debt crisis. For the past few weeks Schultz has been seeking to build a coalition of US business leaders ready to join him in withholding campaign contributions from Washington until the main political parties start working together and agree a debt deal to turn around the beleaguered economy.

In the last few days Schultz has stepped up the campaign with full-page ads in the US press, including the New York Times, taking the form of an open letter on Starbucks headed paper to his "fellow citizens" to join him in "restoring hope in the American Dream" by sending "the message to today's elected officials in a civil, respectful voice they hear and understand, that the time to put citizenship ahead of partisanship is now".

It's quite a remarkable campaign. Schultz has the support of more than a hundred business leaders joining his pledge. Among those listed as "key supporters" on the campaign website are the CEOs of AOL, BBDO, NYSE, NASDAQ, Wholefoods Market and Zipcar. It is not such a significant coalition yet to cause the main political parties any real loss of sleep - compared with major contributors, most of these individuals and companies are not heavily involved in funding political parties. But for a business leader like Schultz to come out and so explicitly take a stand that effectively seeks to hold his domestic politicians to ransom until they do his bidding represents a fairly unique twist on the growing involvement of business in politics and the claim by corporations to be "good citizens".

In one sense, Schultz should be applauded for seeking to use his own and his company's economic muscle to try and achieve what he sees as a greater public good. Management guru, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, for instance has come out in favor of his "courage and leadership" in attempting to restore confidence. Even the more cynical corporate critics will find it difficult to see a clear-cut corporate self-interest at stake here. Sure it could help reinforce the famous Starbucks brand but at the same time its also going to annoy a lot of people too, especially those in Washington who are being labelled by Schultz and his CEO friends as having a "pervasive failure of leadership".

On the other hand, though, we might also question what's really going on here when we have a company CEO leveraging his company brand in such a way to make a political rather than an economic point, and at the same time claiming to be a "fellow citizen" with the rest of us (who can hardly afford to take out full page ads in the New York Times to present our own views on the current political logjam). This is not just Schultz the individual citizen speaking here but Schultz the corporate CEO and representative of Starbucks. But then, if (and it is a big "if") we accept corporations as political actors, then at least this example represents a fairly good case of building coalitions, providing an arena for free and fair deliberation, and moving beyond mere corporate self-interest.

To our mind the whole situation presents a really interesting insight into the emerging political role of the corporation and the difficult decisions that have to be made when business leaders start increasing their involvement in public debates. According to a McKinsey survey, "almost half of US executives believe they and their peers should play a leadership role in publicly shaping debate and in efforts to address sociopolitical issues such as education, health care, and foreign policy ... yet only one-seventh of survey respondents consider themselves to be playing that role now". Schultz's efforts to restore economic confidence by taking a step into politics gives us a taste of what might happen when these executives really start doing so. We still have a choice about whether and how those steps should be taken.

Photo by Nick Humphries. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.