Saturday, January 19, 2008

Who is ignored by the economic system?

In my time as an executive at a tech company I have come to learn that you cannot improve (at least not systematically) what you cannot measure. In corporate terms this means measuring revenue and expense but also things like call center response times and staff utilization rates. By moving to measure more stuff I have been able to rapidly expand revenue and the value of my division.

But something is missing. In business we pay lip service to stakeholders (customers, employees, community) but we never measure impact on them unless it can be clearly linked to shareholder value. We do not for example celebrate how much we paid in taxes, or what we did for the community or what we paid our staff. These items are seen as bads but are as important (if not more so) than what we give back to shareholders. If I were to report back to my bosses about how I had maximized taxes or staff compensation they would send me to the asylum (otherwise known to my bosses as the non-profit world.) But is that not an important part of any citizens roll in society?

The measurement system has been created by the owners and as such it works for them at the expense of the other stakeholders in society. Who cares about people, community, spotted owls? If we cannot show how caring for these things benefits our owners directly then let someone else worry about them (by the way, don't do that. Please go kill off the unions and pesky environmentalists that try to impede our ability to turn a profit.) Our entire society is built on an economic system that completely disregards (or views as bad) all stakeholders with the exception of owners. Worse, we never talk about it. All political discourse in our society takes this economic system as given and never investigates the premises and systems that underline it.

To take an example I often think about the basic system of private ownership that we have created. Our system does not effectively allow for or understand collective ownership. Nothing can be wholistically owned by a group of people and everything must be parsed out into individual alloments that can be bought, sold and transfered. True collective ownership would entail something owned jointly by a group where no individual could sell out. This type of ownership fosters the longer term thinking and the incluesion of indirect costs to the community rather than current status quo where the only question with what to do with an "asset" is what provides the owner with the most value the quickest. Why is this type of ownership absent from the system? It is not as efficient at creating the value we care about even if it is a much better structure for the community as a whole. Our measurement system precludes collective owernship.

There are some that are working on making our current system more palatable without touching the underlying structure or measurement systems. I think that this is admirable work and needs to be done but it is not enough on its own. New business initiatives such corporate social responsibility (CSR) and socially responsible investing (SRI) while positive moves are at best incremental and at worst a smokescreen for continuing down the same destructive path. Our economic program and underlying system of measurement is blind to the needs of human and nonhuman communities. Without a fundamental shift in thinking we are doomed to half measures and continued social and environmental destruction.

You cannot change what you cannot (do not, will not) measure. If we want a world that cares about 'externalities' like community, environment and general social welfare we need to reinvent ways to measure and value this. Until we take that step corporate managers will continue on their death march toward higher profits and endless growth.

1 comment:

Annie Paul said...

i like this. i'm new to blogging so don't know if there are many like yours but i think obstinate and uncultured is a great title and your blog actually lives up to it--that's a compliment by the way. its totally original. thanks!

my blog is a poor thing by comparison but have a look when you can.

active voice