Corporate Eye

Teach a man to fish… | Renewing CSR 2/3

It seems almost crass to hitch yet another article to the Murdoch dark star, but a quote the other day really sums up what this post is about.

I can’t remember who it was .. Matthew Parris perhaps (former Tory MP), or possibly Nick Robinson (BBC Political Editor).

Either way, the quote ran something like this:

You have to remember this is all about power .. who has power over whom and why.

No other phrase could sum up what business-as-usual is all about quite as succinctly.

This is what is meant by office politics: the judicial exercising of power over others, and it is that which defines a business on the wider stage, not necessarily its commercial offering.

So let’s take this from the top.

Business as usual model

Today’s standard business model is that you have an invention (either a product or service) and then you build a commercial enterprise around providing that invention to your target customers.

Other concerns are taken into account.  The costs of supplying and supporting the invention, marketing, R & D etc.  But the core of every company is the same: I have something and I’m prepared to share it with you if you pay me.

The key in this relationship is how much of the invention you hold back as “proprietary rights”.   The more of these rights you withhold, the greater the amount of money you can charge in fees.

Simples, as a certain meerkat would say … and this is why executives get paid more than shop floor staff.  Not because their work is more valuable to the business, but because they have greater power and that power is defined as being their access to and understanding of the company’s proprietary rights.

However, many business commentators say business as usual is no longer a viable model.  So how should power and proprietary rights be viewed once business as usual has gone?

Teach a man to fish

The answer to this lies in the well known Chinese proverb about fishing:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Business as usual has been all about giving the needy fish, not teaching them to fish for themselves.  And I use the word “needy” quite deliberately .. I don’t mean poor or destitute, I mean in need of the services or products being sold. Needy.

The trouble is that this approach has fundamentally undermined society.  For example, it’s very cheap, easy and quick to buy pasta, some tomatoes, herbs and bacon and cook a meal yourself.  However supermarkets quite happily sell you pre-packaged meals which are more expensive and more time consuming than doing it yourself.

This is a good B2C example, but the same analogy holds for B2B services.  Businesses around the word are paying an excessive, dare I say extortionate, amount of money to have services provided to them which they could do themselves more effectively and more cheaply.

Business owners should feel conned because many of the professional services they buy in could be delivered by an in-house team at a fraction of the cost.  But they’ve become used to “ping meals”, not cook-it-yourself.

At the heart of this dilemma is the concept of fish.

CSR is all about engaging and enhancing society.  So here’s a thought .. instead of orienting your business around withholding proprietary rights and flogging fish to the needy, how about teaching people how to fish and making it a business goal that one day no one will have to buy fish because they can do it themselves.

Wouldn’t that be fabulous?

Back in the real world

…. this isn’t going to happen overnight.  Why? Because businesses have shareholders, stakeholders and all sorts of other grit in the mill who demand growth and profit before fish and teaching.

However if you need a premise for a responsible business, you need to concentrate on one aspect alone.  What does your business provide?  Is it fish alone, which undermines society and business; or is it the ability to fish, which enhances commercial longevity and robustness throughout the economy.

It’s all about power.  Do you want to keep power close to your chest for your own selfish reasons, or is your business one which shares power for the good of all concerned?  The former is just business as usual, the latter a more socially and economically engaged form of business.

Which, I wonder, do you support?

Picture Credit: 1927 Crabbing is Fun by Le Petit Poulailler under CC Attribution No Derivatives.

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A former CTO, Chris has a broad and varied background. He’s been involved with blue chips, consultancies & SMEs across a wide variety of sectors and has worked in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. In 2007 he decided to combine his knowledge of business and IT with his passion for all things sustainable and has been busy writing ever since. However, his greatest ambition remains to brew the perfect cup of coffee.