People, profit or both? My second day of the conference began with a speech from Alex Edmans on the ‘role of social responsibility in business success’.
The question he raised was simple: do businesses exist solely for profit or is there a higher purpose? He used an analogy that if profit was the sole motive for business, then people theoretically should be treated like any other raw material. Put simply, a business should try to get the most out of people, and any time employees are seen to be enjoying work could be viewed as productivity lost. The flip-side to this argument is that there is increasing research from companies such as True costs, Asset 4, Calvert and Sustainalytics that shows investing in peoples’ contentment at work has a large payoff in terms of discretionary effort. Unfortunately, most businesses treat the idea of employee investment as a binary option; you are either ‘for the people’ or ‘for the shareholders’ and there is no grey area. Businesses such as Costco in the United States, who invest heavily in their people and pay far more than the minimum wage, often face a backlash from the markets that react with scepticism to such initiatives, since the costs and returns are currently difficult to quantify. Alex suggested that the old profit-motivated attitude leads to short-termism and that an intervention is needed – perhaps even in the form of legislation – particularly in banking sectors where executives seek short-term wins beneficial to them, but that are liable to burn out their support staff. Alex’s proposal was for senior execs to be tied into share options for a period after they leave, thereby reducing the short-term mindset and increasing investment in long-term initiatives that benefit more people. Alex ended his session as he began, with more interesting analogies. He suggested businesses need time for these initiatives to bed in and that we shouldn’t dump ideas (or share stock) at the first sign of trouble in the way Premier League football clubs dump managers after a short spell of poor results. I do think people should sometimes be treated like raw materials, but not in a negative way. Imagine if a restaurant treated its fresh food with the same indifference that some businesses treat their staff; the food would perish and cease to be of any value, so I believe we need to acknowledge that people – or at least their ideas and motivation – can perish too. The challenge for us is to strike a balance between profit and people, which will help us and similar businesses redefine what it means to be a modern, purposeful company. Technology - Friend or foe The late morning continued with a session on the ‘new world at work and what constitutes good work’. Addison Lee raised a number of interesting concerns such as the Gig economy - an environment in which temporary positions are common and organisations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements. They questioned how their employees can have an ‘employee voice’ in a business they are not directly employed in, and where a line manager is effectively an algorithm on their smartphone. The advent of technology has created a boom in Gig economies for businesses such as Deliveroo and Uber. On one hand, the apps used by these businesses help safeguard staff through the use of GPS, but there is a debatable point around surveillance to this, because every metric of the ‘employee’ can be measured, from the speed of their bicycle to the number of unscheduled stops they make. It seems again that we are constantly trying to strike a balance between profit wellbeing. Ultimately, what this boils down to is our natural fear of change. However, history has often shown that our fears are overblown and what tends to happen with any innovation is not a loss of human involvement, but a shift in how we work. Addison Lee was quick to add that the key to any change is to allow people to have a voice. The sense of community that is lacking for Uber drivers and Deliveroo may be mitigated by a simple WhatsApp or Facebook group in which to say “good morning”, and to share ideas and work-related challenges. In the UK, only one in three people are not receiving any training for their roles, and fewer than one in four have any say in upcoming change. Compare this to Germany, whose leaders have commissioned think tanks and research into the near and distant future. In light of this, there’s a danger that the UK could become a passive recipient of this kind of change, rather than a key influencer. Is there a place for social learning? Later in the afternoon, I attended a session on enabling ‘social collaborative learning (SCL) through technology’. Most of us now use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter regularly in our personal lives, so we know what works well. However, it seems the jury is still out on the best way forward with SCL. Lingering questions such as what it is best used for, how its benefits could be measured and whether we could adopt the ready-made infrastructure of Facebook, persist. It does seem that many businesses are looking into this and market leaders have some constructive advice for the rest of us: Failures in up front development, in terms of having enough icons, tools, menus and tagging features, seems to be the main things that SCL predecessors have got wrong. The presenters also suggested that we still need a human component to exercise judgement and management for any system. In the past, it was assumed that a platform could be built and run itself, but evidence suggests that people need more support to guide them and create effective meaningful content before they will move away from the comfort zones of email, classroom-style meetings and traditional training courses. For it to be successful, social learning needs three things: a focus on access, meaningful content and a lot of support. Interestingly, research into social learning suggests people feel more comfortable asking questions or challenging people’s views using SCL than on webinars, so perhaps social learning is more social than we think after all! Hitting the right note A fantastic conference deserves a fantastic ending and we certainly got one. Professor Gernot Schulz managed to explain the power of nonverbal communication, to the amazement of the audience, using his orchestra. My ignorance about the role of an orchestral conductor was quickly blown away when the professor demonstrated what a symphony would sound like with and without his hand signals. He cleverly drew parallels with the corporate world, comparing our leaders to conductors, and suggested that the key to conducting an orchestra of people in any situation is the ability to listen, be perceived and adapt your style to the individual and the outcome that everyone wants. He demonstrated the value of his sturdy hand, like that of a CEO, is at its most conspicuous in its absence. Leading is about striking a balance between too much and too little direction, which the professor summarised by comparing members of an orchestra to any great team – he said people do not always need you to show them the ‘beat’, but what they do need is for you to set the ‘tempo’. Needless to say, I am already looking forward to next year’s conference.