Category Archives: Management Practice

Current management practice

What good are Stock Markets?

An article in the current issue of Harvard Business Review notes that there has been a ‘multi-trillion dollar transfer of cash from US corporations to their shareholders over the past 10 years’ [‘What good are shareholders?’, Fox & Lorsch]. The City of London achieved similar disinvestment. But that’s not what stock markets are supposed to be for. The money was supposed to flow the other way, from myriads of investors into new industrial, technological and business developments.

But public companies clearly no longer need to issue shares for sale on the stock market. Their funding is largely through retained profit and more and more of them are actually being taken private where disclosure and transparency requirements are less invasive. At the same time, the fast growing small and medium sized innovators on which a sustainable future depends, and which do need to acquire additional funds for future investment, don’t find stock markets a satisfactory means of raising the necessary. The fund managers and traders who control investment in stocks and shares want fast, low risk returns. But returns from SME innovators, even though they may be exciting and sustainable, are unacceptably long term.
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What will replace the public company?

The public company, the corporate form that Chandler once described as the most powerful institution in the economy and which made industrialisation possible, is rapidly becoming an endangered species. Over the past decade the number of public companies in the UK has almost halved and declined by 38% in the United States. Similarly, the number of Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) has declined by over two thirds, and in the case of SMEs by more than 80%.

These statistics are quoted in a recent article in The Economist which puts the rapid decline down to the over regulation of public companies. This is the only explanation available that fits The Economist’s free market dogma. The article cites the case of Boots the Chemist as an exemplar of how ‘now it is perfectly respectable to choose to “go private”’. This is a distortion of what happened to Boots. Under the leadership of asset stripping accountant, Sir Nigel Rudd, Boots merged with Alliance Unichem which was preliminary to the opportunistic takeover by an American private equity firm, which saddled the company with the debt raised for its acquisition and moved its registration to a tax avoiding canton in Switzerland. What part of that sad story is ‘perfectly respectable’ is open to debate. The result is that a great British company was raped and pillaged for the benefit of a small number of individuals, mainly in an American private equity limited liability partnership.
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The Defunct Professor Friedman?

‘Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist’. Practical men, say, like Bob Diamond. You can’t get much more practical than a man of limited intellect who takes from his place of work £17m a year, less a bit for having led a banking operation now officially recognized for its lack of ‘skill, care and diligence’, not to mention its criminal fixing of international money markets. Bob, himself, admitted his favourite economist is none other than Milton Friedman of the Austro-Chicago school of laissez faire, free marketeers.

Friedman’s influence still dominates government, finance and business, not just billionaire bankers. When he first came to the fore it was as a monetarist. The way to a small government and light touch regulation was to grant maximum freedom within a tightly controlled framework: the quantity of money in circulation. According to Friedman ‘too much money chasing too few goods’ would inevitably cause inflation. With Thatcher and Reagan, that simple aphorism replaced the Keynesian economics that had ruled since the second world war. But it didn’t work. There were too many unknowns about the quantity of money and the velocity of its circulation, and that rendered monetarist policy ineffective. Friedman himself expressed his disappointment at the ineffectiveness of monetarist policy.
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A New and Legal Orthodox Wisdom

Unilever’s Paul Polman must be a Chief Executive in a million. Or more. In his interview with Guardian Sustainable Business, Polman calls on business leaders, politicians and NGOs to recognise they cannot deal with the world’s environmental and social challenges by pursuit of Milton Friedman’s target of maximising shareholder wealth. Polman names a few other companies who are moving in that same direction, and suggests their numbers are growing. But it is a drop in the ocean.

“Why,” he asks, “would you invest in a company which is out of synch with the needs of society, that does not take its social compliance in its supply chain seriously, that does not think about the costs of externalities, or of its negative impacts on society?”

Sadly, the answer is simple and obvious: to make a quick buck. Friedman said that corporate officials had no other social responsibility than to make as much money as possible for shareholders, and that is what the business schools and university departments have been teaching ever since. So that is how the world now works. The world – business leaders, politicians, academics, and even the people in the street – have come to believe that it is the legal duty of those who run businesses to maximise the wealth of shareholders, and to hell with everything else. But it is simply not the case. We should not need heroic figures like Paul Polman to change the world. It should simply be a matter of compliance with the law.
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Modifying the Capitalist System

Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein, Citibank’s Vikram Pandit and, of course, Barclay’s Bob Diamond, all have something in common. Even their normally acquiescent shareholders have been moved to express concern about their latest round of excess, greed and thuggery. But they are only the tip of the ice-berg. It has become custom and practice for top people to take spectacularly from the businesses they command. Whether their take, largely for unacceptable performance, is £5m or £67m makes little difference. It obviously bears no relation to their true worth: their talent, or their hard work.

These are the unacceptable faces of capitalism, the reasons why people have so little trust in the integrity of corporate business. They are why people are demanding ‘new models of capitalism’, ‘ethical capitalism’, ‘capitalism with a conscience’, etc. And why Ed Milliband makes the clear distinction between what he refers to as ‘good capitalism’ and ‘bad capitalism’.

But capitalism with a conscience won’t work. We may all start out with a conscience, but if the system tempts us with untold riches for doing not a lot, then most of us are likely to fall for it. Our intrinsic good intentions will be crowded out by extrinsic incentives or greed. The problem is making the system proof against that simple human frailty. Continue reading Modifying the Capitalist System

Free Markets Controlled by the Unaccountables

How does a basic item of clothing, say a shirt, come into existence. Where does the cloth come from? And the colours or dyes, the buttons and thread, the machines that cut the fabric and the machines that stitch the bits together? And who dreamed up the designs and how did they get printed on the fabric? And what brought all these things together to produce the finished article? And how did it get distributed to people wanting such a shirt? The answer to all those questions is, of course, ‘the market’. No other form of economic organisation gets anywhere near that level of efficiency or provides a comparable degree of choice. All the tools of central planning and control of the former communist states, proved incapable of organising the production and distribution of shirts that people actually wanted to buy. That is the beauty and power of the market for something as simple as a shirt. For more complex products, and most products are, the competitive advantage of the market over any alternative, is far greater even than that.

The thing that makes the market so effective is competition: the existence of alternative suppliers of cloth, dyes, thread, machines and the rest. Without competition , the market would be no different from the central planning and control system. That failed not only because of its inherent inefficiency and proneness to bad decisions, but because the empowered bureaucracy was vulnerable to self-interested, even corrupt and illicit decision making. Monopolists are in exactly the same position: inefficient and vulnerable, and likely to take corrupt and predatory decisions to further their avowed aim of maximising shareholder wealth.
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God Complex ‘Drivers’ to Extinction

Keynes referred to them as the ‘madmen in authority’, referring to the policy makers and top financial and business executives, who rule our world. Maybe ‘madmen’ doesn’t quite capture their essential characteristics today. After all, mainstream economists would argue they are not mad, but wholly rational in their unwavering pursuit of self-interest without regard to any broader, more enlightened consideration. In a talk to TED’s global conference (TED – Technology Entertainment Design – bills itself as a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading), economist Tim Harford identified a ‘terrible affliction’, one that the ‘madmen’ might be suffering from. It was both ‘debilitating to individuals and corrosive to society’. He referred to as ‘the God complex’, the symptoms of which could be simply described as: ‘no matter how complicated a problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solutions.’

The UK coalition government has more than its fair share of sufferers: Andrew Lansley at Health, Michael Gove at Education, and, of course, Prime Minister Cameron, self-confessed expert in how to manage hospital wards, deal with binge drinking, solve racism in football and make child adoption processes fairer and faster, to name but a few recent self-confessions. These are individuals convinced of their infallibility, despite the complexity of the issues they confront, and not prepared, unless forced, to consider the possibility they might be wrong and other solutions might be better.
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Bad Theory and Management Renewal

Management scholar, Sumantra Ghoshal, accused mainstream business schools and university departments of teaching ‘bad management theories’ that were ‘destroying good management practices’. His arguments were persuasive, both as to how bad the theories were and how effective they had been in destroying good management practice. The bad theory was that management had no other social responsibility than the legal duty to maximise shareholder wealth. The good practices this bad theory destroyed were related to concern for employees, customers, the local community, the environment and (therefore) the long term, all of which were exploited and impoverished, or at the very least neglected, on the altar of short term shareholder interests.

Ghoshal argued that destroying the bad theory would be an essential first step to renewing good management practice. If the bad theory remained intact, the greed enabling culture it supported would remain as the dominant set of beliefs. Under that circumstance, initiatives promoting sustainability, transparency, fairness and integrity, as characteristic of the role of business in society, would be doomed to fail. At the end of the day, no matter how worthy an action would be, if it meant reducing shareholder return, it would not be sustained. And if an action were to harm employees, customers, the community or environment, but would enrich shareholders, it would be justified. For this to be reversed, the bad theory must be totally overturned.
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What Really Matters Now

Professor Gary Hamel’s new book is available: ‘What Matters Now: how to win in a world of relentless change, ferocious competition, and unstoppable innovation’. Hamel is a breathless optimist. He sees the world changing and he encourages and motivates managers to achieve near impossible ends. He believes in the potential greatness and goodness of industry and teaches bright young people how to raise their game so as to take us forward to the promised land. He is today’s Peter Drucker, with slightly less gravitas, but rather more academic shape and a whole lot more bounce. We need Gary Hamel. Big business under the Hamel code would be honest and trustworthy, exciting and innovatory, giving people real opportunity to develop to their full potential and encouraging them to participate in decision making at all levels. He puts five issues at the centre of whether a business will ‘thrive or dive’ in the years ahead: values, innovation, adaptability, passion and ideology. They’re all people based factors which together ratchet up corporate performance to winning. But there’s a problem with Hamel’s brave new world. It’s not going to work.

Management practitioners today, at least the vast majority, believe in something quite different. They are taught to be, and have become, dedicated followers of the Friedman line: their bounden duty, they believe, is to maximise the wealth of shareholders, having no other social responsibility than that. To hell with everything else! Oblivious of the fact that maximising any one thing necessarily results in the neglect and impoverishment of everything else, they are taught that the relentless pursuit of shareholder value will end with the best result in the best of all possible worlds. But that, as Sir Mike Darrington of the Pro-Business Anti-Greed campaign would put it, is all ‘total bollocks’.
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Anglo-American Post-Industrial Waste

The idea of the life cycle is widely applicable, from products and industries to something as simple as a lighted candle, or even something as complex as a whole economy. It depicts four distinct stages: start up, growth, maturity and decline. The early stages are slow with typically many false starts, but once a particular approach is established, growth takes off. For example, the factory system in 18th century England. During this growth phase innovation dominates, with new technologies applied to produce genuinely new products with more features and better performance. In due course, generally accepted standards of performance emerge as growth slows into maturity. During this critical transition to maturity there will be a radical reassessment of growth projections and fierce competition will force the weakest to withdraw.

During the ensuing, relatively stable mature phase, the emphasis of innovation tends to move from product to process, where innovations are largely aimed at reducing costs and improving efficiency. That phase comes to an end when either a completely new technology takes over or some other structural change eliminates the existing; maybe something like globalisation. Again the reduction in future expectations will cause intensified competition and force out marginal units.
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