Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Looking back

While clearing up my library recently, I came upon a book by K.R. Andrews, "The Concept of Corporate Strategy" (1971). Looking through the text over 40 years later, I am amazed how current Andrews’ considerations are. Andrews was Professor for Strategic Management at the Harvard Business School. He became well known for a number of things, among them a case study on the Swiss watch industry. In this study he demonstrated how a small firm can compete with larger ones strategically, sustainably and successfully.

In his Concept of Strategy, Andrews argued on the basis of the SWOT analysis - which is his “invention" by the way - that a firm always needs to seek an economic strategy that is aligned to the moral concepts of its leaders (p.38): "Personal values, aspirations, and ideals do, and in our judgment quite properly should, influence the final choice of purpose". In this way the manager’s sense of responsibility as human being and not as homo oeconomicus is addressed ("his own standards of right and wrong") (p.118). For Andrews, strategy is always "a human construction; it must be responsive to human needs" (p.117). Andrews goes even further and argues in the spirit of modern Stakeholder Theory that strategic decisions also need to always have the well being of society as a whole in mind. He writes: "By ‘social responsibility’ we mean the intelligent and objective concern for the welfare of society that restrains individual and corporate behavior from ultimately destructive activities, no matter how immediately profitable, and leads in the direction of positive contributions to human betterment, variously as the latter may be defined." (p. 120) Unfortunately this thinking, on Strategy Theory and the practice of strategic action, was completely buried in the 80s by narrow and inflexible economic thinking. Ironically, his colleagues Porter and Jensen, also at the Harvard Business School, were forceful promoters of the economic model. Decisive factors were Shareholder Value as the primary goal and hard competition; homo oeconomicus determined practices. This led to unreal abstractions with dangerous consequences. For these reasons, the “ultimately destructive activities” that Andrews addresses in the above quote came about in the financial crisis of 2008. And the subsequent debt crisis confirms his warning: "Business cannot remain healthy in a sick community; ultimately no corporation is an island."

Today scientific work in Strategic Theory places great emphasis on the latest literature. However, sometimes it would also be good to refer to old classics; they often challenge “modern” theories and accepted practice! In any case, Andrews can be regarded as a forerunner of a stakeholder-oriented view of strategy.

 Edwin Rühli




Monday, March 18, 2013

The "Yes" to the fat cat initiative and the destruction of the social contract in Switzerland
Switzerland was for once progressive: it said yes to the so called fat cat initiative (“Abzocker-Initiative”) which gives shareholders more binding say over company executive compensation. The day after the vote media around the world reported about the decision in the tiny country. This shows that the verdict of Swiss voters hit the nerve of an issue of global interest.

Before the ballot economic-liberal commentators of the country described the fat cat initiative as a danger for the Swiss social contract between citizens and elite which consists of a highly liberal economic regulation. They acknowledged that the dismantling of the contract had begun when the economic elite started to pay exorbitant compensations to managerial top-shots which legitimised this with a hint to realities of the global economy. They also understood that such and similar behaviour (e.g. high risk strategies of banks) completely ignored the deeply anchored culture of egalitarianism and disliking pomposity in Switzerland.
Despite this, the elite omitted to approach the issues appropriately. In approvals to proposals like the fat cat initiative these commentators see the price the elite now have to pay for its ignorance: a further dismantling of the social contract in the form of more economic regulation. This probably all is true. But beyond this, citizens seem to have realised that the time has come to go new ways. The worldwide interest in the yes to the initiative supports this: it shows that the issue of the behaviour of detached economic elite is not a specific Swiss concern. And the yes indeed was not primarily a yes to strengthen shareholders’ rights but a yes to stop the detached behaviour of the elite.
It is key that the elite realises that it can hold no longer on obsolete practices and to preserve the “ancient régime” if it wants to retain the social contract providing liberal economic conditions. Only if the elite are willing to understand moderation and the role of companies primarily to serve the society not as a local competitive disadvantage but as a global necessity the specific Swiss social contract without much regulation can be renewed.

Besides all this it would be negligent not to consider shortly the fact that the fat cat initiative reinforces the rights of shareholders. But even if one considers the enforcement of these rights as appropriate, the question about the interests of the other stakeholders stays largely unanswered by the initiative. Indeed, the initiative requires pension funds to vote in the interest of their insurants. But this alone is insufficient. Shareholders, of course, are also stakeholders. But they have specific interests and are a part of the economic elite (at least the larger ones). Switzerland has to go further down the road and the elite have to participate if it wants that the reforms do not come exclusively in the form of new regulations. Because the time is ripe for corrective measures reforms will come anyway, in either form (regulative or liberal). And because the issue is global in nature also the other countries are under pressure to reform.
Claude Meier

Friday, March 8, 2013

Caring about the customer
In stakeholder management customers are regarded as primary stakeholders of the firm but also many a firm not pursuing general stakeholder management, does think it should be customer oriented. “Usability”, “ergonomics” and “human centred design” are no longer exceptions in strategic considerations. The customers are moving toward the core focus of business, which I think is a good development, because traditional customer orientation is not enough. A deeper and more honest relationship to the people who are buying your goods is necessary. As I see it, the primary focus should not be on how to sell more of a company’s products, but on what the person buying the product really wants (also resulting in selling more products).
I would like to illustrate this think shift: Many people like to eat healthy food. A snack company spots this customer need, puts some milk into the product and praises it as being a healthy snack, even though most nutritionists would assess the product to be of the contrary (heavily sugared and fatty). So just by recognizing and addressing the consumer need doesn’t make a customer centred firm. Another example: Consumers like the look of dark red meat (not grayish meat) because they have built the mental shortcut (heuristic) that intense color in food is a sign of freshness. This is why market research study participants would prefer the dark red meat to a grayish meat product. A company that follows what the consumer actually wants, will not sell the consumer a meat that was treated with a gas that keeps it red (but doesn’t keep it fresh), it will sell the consumer fresh meat. This is not only a shift in strategy, this will have wide implications for a company’s daily business in distribution, packaging, communication and so on.
We use these mental shortcuts (here: intense color equals fresh food) because they mostly lead us to making good decisions (read publications by Gerd Gigerenzer for more on this topic). Shortcuts make life easier; especially in this fast paced, information-overloaded environment. These heuristics are good because they are often based on experience and implicit knowledge. But the shortcut only works if it is not tampered with by others. Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist, wrote several books on persuasion, summarizing his findings based on many experiments he had made in his research on e.g. selling tactics. But he states “Just because a given [powerful psychological] principle is successful does not mean we are ethically entitled to commission its persuasive power to create change.” I think this misusing psychological mechanisms such as heuristics is not only unethical it is also a strategy that won’t lead to sustainable business success. A company that shares its purpose (the “why” of a company) with its customers and therefore wants the same thing, will be able to engage the people they call their customers and conquer the challenges (such as resource scarcity) together in an innovative way, and of course sell their products.
Vanessa McSorley