Limits to Transparency

If only the world could be more transparent it would be a much better place to live in. Companies would behave more responsible, Governments would be able to enforce rules, regulate much more effectively and people in general would have a much better idea about the powers influencing their everyday lives.

Transparency has been the mantra of the CSR movement we have hailed the word on numerous occasions on every seminar I have ever attended. When companies have come to us we have told them that If only they were a little more transparent they would not be in the mess that they are in right now! Or we have preached to them that the only way to protect themselves is if they can report on a few more indicators in order to quantify their processes and show that they are truly sustainable.

I have worked with these systems for the past 15 years and I know every one of them from A to Z. I wake up at night reciting ISO26000 on Concepts, Terms and Definitions and I know the weak points in the Global Compact and all the companies that cut corners to be part of the sustainable business movement and being FB pals with Ban Ki-Moon.

On of my friends Michael Koploy send me an entry he made on 5 Questions to Start the Sustainable Supply Chain Conversation and it made me thinking about some of the things that we continue to talk about but keep missing. He does argue for more transparency, as we all do, but also that we should take a look beyond the apparent and into the DNA of the company. The “what are we all about”-question of sustainable business. How do we get managers to think for themselves, their business and the society that they are part of at the same time?

We produce incentive plans and bonus schemes, but it did little or nothing to prevent greed and poor ethics during the initial stages of the financial crisis. We created lists of “good” companies, but they do not seem to do much better than the ones that are “bad”. We have systems upon systems that produce endless reports that only a handful of people actually read. So what is the answer to creating a sustainable DNA for business leaders?

Well for starters we should take a good hard look at our educational system both the public and private ones. What are we actually teaching our coming leaders about how to run a business? Are we teaching them how to create a sustainable business model in more than financial terms or have our business schools and universities become temples of past ideologies? I do not talk about revolution or throwing professors out on the streets (even though some of them might need to go that way), but about taking a hard look at what we actually teach our students. We know that blindly following the thinking and guidelines of Keynes, Hayek or Friedman only works in the short run (Keynes smiles) so why not take that insight seriously and bringing it into the lecture hall.

Secondly we need to make shareholders/owners accountable. It will be a significant step away from what we have been used to be doing until now and nothing like business as usual. For too many years one could have an ownership form where one could own a company but not be accountable for its actions. We appoint a board of directors, but we do not really care who they are or what they are doing, as long as they keep producing the results that we want them to. In the process they become complacent and distant from the decision making process. And when things eventually go wrong they are often caught unaware of what have been going on right under their noses.

It would be presumptuous of me to say that I have all the answers, but I do know that its takes more than measuring to create a sustainable business as Michael points out. CSR is more a symptom of a financial ideology that have been over interpreted and gone wrong than an independent movement. Our never-ending quest for accountability and transparency will not succeed until we realise that we need to make some changes to how business operate and we do not do this by replacing with just another ideology.

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