Like decent human beings

I was in France recently, for work mostly rather than pleasure. I’ve had to speak more French in these few days than I’ve done for decades, and it’s been gratifying to feel that once surrounded by the everyday words and grammar, and forced to use it, my decayed knowledge of the language should revive itself.

All the same I still have to tune in, to focus hard on what’s being said, and in this respect, for much of the time, this week has offered some of the pleasure that any trip to a foreign country presents, the relaxation of being away from an environment where you’re sensitive to every social or culturally-inflected nuance.

This general calm envelops you, helping you switch off and enjoy yourself. It’s a calm that can also hold off the intrusions of the commercial world, which in reality are as omnipresent in France as anywhere else. I can read French well enough and know what all the signs and ads mean, but it seems so much easier to screen them out, knowing they are for the most part aimed at homegrown consumers.

Then again in France there are still many more small independent enterprises (or so it seems), and a good deal less uniformity in the town centres. The big chains are still there of course, but their impact is leavened by more individual shop fronts. (It’s a different story on the outskirts of town where the French were the European pioneers of US style mega-retail sites.)

Consistency v uniformity

I’d guess the big retail chains would argue that this obliterative uniformity in town centres is important to their brand recognition, or indeed that some people find comfort in it: you know what you’re going to get when you go into Starbucks or Costa. But I wonder (as ever) whether they’re confusing uniformity with consistency, and whether there’s now an opportunity for a more nuanced relationship between businesses and their customers.

Just to take a small example, I use Costa coffee shops quite a lot, because the coffee is reasonable, the seats comfortable, and I know I can pick up the wifi. These are all good consistencies. The uniformity of the decor is a little dispiriting, though I understand why it might be cheaper for the business. But why force the staff to wear uniforms? Why not just give them aprons (branded if necessary) and otherwise let them retain their individuality? After all these are social places, and in my local branch I’m on first name terms with many of them. That individuality can easily co-exist with the consistency you do want to preserve. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to draw everything into the machine.

Then again it may be time for a much more profound redefinition of the place of business in society.

Rethinking corporate purpose

In the last five years or so management thinking has been pushing the importance of corporate purpose, of what business is for. The idea probably has its roots in the older notion of corporate social responsibility (CSR), but what’s most striking about it is how it sits at odds with what has become the ascendant dogma of shareholder capitalism, that the real driving force for business decisions has been the need to make large amounts of money to feed the short term demands of the financial community.

I’m not suggesting it’s wrong for businesses to want to make money. Indeed I think it’s important that they do so. Businesses are always going to be the primary engine for the redistribution of the wealth they create, through the salaries and the taxes they pay. I’d argue that in the last thirty years, and particularly the last ten, they have become dysfunctional in this respect, because the supremacy of the shareholder-led model has been diverting disproportionate amounts of money into the financial community, which is then unable or unwilling to deploy that accumulated capital to create further useful value for society. This in a nutshell is why the current phenomenon of “inequality” is so important and so dangerous.

The idea of “corporate purpose” can’t be treated on the same footing as other management concepts like brand or Total Quality Management, because it demands a circle of assent between business managers and the social or cultural views in which they must operate. It’s not just another tool to engage better employee motivation and raise productivity, though it might well do those things. It’s part of an evolution away from what has proved a destructive business model.

I’m not underestimating the difficulties here. Although there are many business leaders who already recognise that there’s a problem, getting the financial sector to change its expectations and its habits is going to be tough. It can only happen through a combination of primary legislation, fiscal manipulation (to reward long term investment) and a public debate which creates pressure for change. It will be a tough sell because it means those in the financial sector will have to accept smaller (if still rich) rewards, as will senior management. Before objectors start talking about global marketplaces and the demand for “top talent” it also needs to be said that at the moment it’s a rigged market, and that the escalation of reward is higher in the UK even than the US. It’s become a structural problem for our economy, and it has to be addressed.

Getting it right

But there are some immediate rewards for businesses that can get it right. Getting it right means thinking about corporate purpose differently. It’s not about bolting on some kind of overarching social good, to take the place of shareholder primacy; for many businesses it may be impossible to link a social good to its products, and in any case unless that social purpose is real (which means it could never be compromised for the sake of earnings) it’s always going to be vulnerable to accusations that it’s no more than a PR stunt.

But it should be possible (and necessary) for every business to think more coherently and accurately about its place in society, and what this means for its “stakeholder” relationships.

In a sense this isn’t new. It’s what CSR was supposed to be about, and indeed what the notion of “stakeholder” was supposed to push forward. But CSR was treated largely as a function, not a way of being, and that was always likely in an era where the need to meet short-term shareholder demands has been the dominant truth of corporate purpose.

What is new is a shift in consumer views of business, a cynicism and anxiety brought on by the more rapacious version of capitalism that’s come into being. It’s a cynicism that makes all the things businesses want to say about their values and commitments sound hollow. To address this cynicism I’d suggest businesses don’t need to reach for some distinctive “corporate purpose”. They need to start behaving like decent human beings.

And that’s an interesting idea.

Being human

It’s an idea with radical implications for the ways businesses talk to their customers, and to themselves (to their staff). Apart from anything else it means being unafraid of letting the real humanity in your business speak for itself (or actually, themselves). So if as is likely your business is currently exploring the tricky territory of social media, you need to let the people doing it be themselves, let them speak for themselves in their conversations (the clue is in that word “social”). That doesn’t mean they should be discussing their personal politics, but it takes us back to the coffee shop, to the important distinction between consistency and uniformity. If people speak (or write) like corporate robots, slaves to the tone-of-voice fascism of routine brand thinking, the conversation will not go far because in a social context we don’t really like talking to robots. Your representatives need to understand what it is about the business that matters, about its corporate story and its priorities, but they need to be able to tell that story in their own, human words.

It means when it comes to a town centre presence, whether in France or anywhere else, a little more modesty might be called for, because that’s an attractive human trait, and could make people warm to your business rather than seeing it as an unreflective marketing machine. So while you might reasonably want to offer instantly recognisable signage, you might do so in a way that shows greater care for, greater attention to whatever else might be going on around. The local authority in Stratford upon Avon has long imposed this constraint on businesses in its historic centre, and I doubt it’s led to any diminishing of brand recognition.

The idea of being human goes beyond the way businesses speak, or present themselves. It’s about how they think, about their aspirations, about how they expect staff to feel about their work, and how those staff themselves relate what they do at work to the values that govern the rest of their lives (one might say it’s about pulling down the artificial division between the spheres of work and everything else). Given that conceptual, behavioural shift, more effective, engaging communication should follow.

So in this sense it’s not a communications issue at all. It’s about engaging with reality.

We are at an important moment of change. As I write the UK is about to go to the polls in a general election. It’s been one of the most unengaging campaigns I can remember, at a time when the choices that need to be made could hardly matter more.

It’s been unengaging because politicians, ever behind the curve, still believe that what you say doesn’t particularly have to connect to reality, that you can win by spin, by constructing your own reality. In recent years, partly because of the internet, partly because of events, this idea which started in business has begun to unravel. In business, politics, and every other aspect of our lives, we need to reconnect what we want and do with who we really are (as humans). Then we might stand a chance of having other humans help us along the way.

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