Africa is a great innovation frontier

While many people think of Africa as a backwater, a lost cause, a dark continent, I prefer to think of it as the newest great innovation frontier.

On this continent there are as many opportunities for innovation as there are seemingly insurmountable problems. From a lack of housing and infrastructure, to woeful education and healthcare, the potential is staggering.

So why are organisations and individuals not lining up to cash in on these opportunities? Partly because of the way we think about innovation, and perhaps the way it is taught in many business schools, which is misleading.

Innovators are the clever ones, right? They inhabit places like MIT Media Lab and they get paid lots of money, or they are big companies like Google that have the luxury of market share to build an innovation culture.

Well yes, of course we have a lot to thank MIT and Google for on the innovation front, both in terms of the innovations that they have developed and for what they have taught us about the process of innovation. But innovation also happens in unlikely places – often on the front lines where the problems are actually playing out – and it does not always have to be high tech.

Consider the story of a young medical doctor working in maternity wards in Namibia in the 1990s, who is distressed by the high rates of mortality of premature babies due to a lack of incubators in the country. Out of desperation he introduces a revolutionary practice that he knows to have worked in other countries – he encourages mothers to hold their premature babies close, skin-to-skin, as much as possible. The results of this non-tech solution are impressive; more babies survive, and this practice – known as kangaroo care – is now widely implemented in many hospitals in low-resource settings.

The young doctor, Francois Bonnici, is now the director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business. And the Bertha Centre is looking to find, develop and scale up all kinds of innovations (high-tech, low-tech and non-tech) in all sorts of sectors to address real needs and create sustainable and inclusive businesses in the process.

As a business school we are particularly interested in how the power of business and business thinking can be used to address challenges and create viable businesses that include and benefit consumers and producers (rather than just shareholders). More than that, we think that this kind of thinking can help propel emerging economies to the forefront of innovation culture in the world.

Innovation and inclusivity are important beacons for socially responsible companies interested in expanding their business and maximising opportunity while adding value and meaning. As Unilever COO, Harish Manwani, remarked in a TED talk last year: “Companies cannot afford to be just innocent bystanders in what’s happening around them. They have to begin to play their role in serving the communities that actually sustain them.”

And with more than 57% of its business now in emerging markets, Unilever is practising what it preaches and reaping the rewards. Despite global slowdown in both emerging and developed markets the company said in July that it is on track to outperform its markets this year.

So how do we create more organisations and businesses like Unilever that think differently and are moving away from the traditional methods of business that focused on profit and the bottom line above all else, towards a focus on adding value?

Partly it is about creating an effective innovation ecosystem to support and resource such businesses. But equally importantly we need to foster an entrepreneurship mindset: an attitude of taking action and responsibility, and challenging the status quo to find new ways to do things – not just in entrepreneurs, but in corporate leaders and in business graduates as well.

And while new technology will be a part of this, we don’t need to invent new stuff all the time, there is enough out there, we only need to get people to think differently about how to use what we have purposefully, to create new businesses, solve problems and build economies.

The opportunities are there for the taking for those who are willing to think in full colour and open their minds to them.

This blog was first published in my monthly column in Fast Company (see http://www.fastcompany.co.za)

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Face-to-face learning and communication still the best

No one can argue about the benefits of technology in the modern educational environment. It has become a vital part of the business landscape, an integral part of our lives and a crucial tool that enables us to reach millions more students in remote and inaccessible areas of the world – like in some parts of Africa – where there is great need for education of business and community leaders, who in turn become able to translate knowledge into workable solutions for their communities.

In the US the number of college students taking at least one online course nearly doubled, from 24% to 45%, over the past five years. Students are also bringing more devices onto campus, with laptops and smartphones topping the list.

The Association of MBAs (AMBA) Chief Executive, Andrew Wilson, told delegates at a recent international conference for deans and directors in France that: “despite the rise in online learning, the face-to-face element still remains the strongest part of the MBA learning experience”.

Online learning has had mixed successes around the world. One of it’s biggest failings? The lack of human interaction.

There are many reasons why human interaction is important to the learning experience. German researchers from the Institute of Neurosciences and Medicine at Jϋlich studied the effect people’s facial expressions had on other people while communicating. They stated that a key aspect of social interaction depended on inferring the other person’s emotional state by evaluating their facial expressions. The effect of face-to-face interaction on our feelings and responses is considerable. Different responses are triggered when people avert their faces or show only part of their face when someone is talking to them.

A slightly different kind of study published in the Harvard Business Review in 2013 revealed that business leaders still valued doing business in person. The study showed that 87% of professionals thought face-to-face meetings were essential for sealing the deal and 95% said they were key to successful long-lasting business relationships.

Both the German study and the Harvard Business Review study reveal the importance of face-to-face interaction. Email, texting and video-conferencing are powerful communication tools, but they cannot replace the advantages of people communicating face-to-face. This is because communication is not only about the words people use but also about non-verbal communication; body language, tone and facial expression.

Good communication skills are vital for business, as well as learning success. This is why online learning courses, coupled with face-to-face tutoring or additional group work, create a powerful combination that enhances the learning experience and will probably form the basis of future online learning options.

At the GSB online learning is an important element, but it is never divorced from human interaction. This is partly because computers can never take the place of the teacher, but also because for real learning to take place, the participant must feel and truly experience the knowledge that is imparted.

The GSB therefore has experimented with online learning built around traditional business concepts, but where learners are also given the tools and motivation to apply these to their lives and their work. Learning really only comes alive when it is given personal meaning, when participants take universal concepts and apply them to their own company, organisation or country structure.

Already, the online education revolution has changed the way business schools and other educational institutions operate, teach and relate to students. It has opened the doors of knowledge in parts of the world where students cannot afford to go to university yet dream of getting a quality education and bettering their lives. Combined with a little face-to-face communication and the unbeatable human touch, the sky is the limit for business schools willing to be flexible and adaptable in their educational offerings.

[A more comprehensive version of this blog was published in the Cape Argus on 6 August 2014]

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Giving in to the magic of holistic organisations

Music has often been used as a metaphor in management education to illustrate how people interact and how businesses work.

As the world gets more complicated we are naturally looking for new ways of organising business: the interactions between different employees, departments, and partners. Old approaches have to give way to new, and what we need is organisations that are more organic, holistic and innovative. In essence we need a new paradigm, a new tune to dance to, and flamenco offers the perfect lens through which to envision such organisations.

Flamenco started out in Andalucia as an individual art form, and quickly gained a collectivist dimension. Flamenco singers sing the guiding melodies, always inviting the audience to join in. The dancers provoke others to dance, the instruments, although perpetually in solo, work toward the greater unison that emerges. It holds at its centre the soul and a willingness to be alive. Romantic and mystical, flamenco concerns itself with pain, loneliness, love and death.

So what links flamenco and modern organisation theory? The central defining characteristic of flamenco is re-creation within a structure. Certain rhythms and tones determine the musical movements, certain steps guide the dancing, certain keys govern the singing, but instrumentalists, dancers and singers can improvise constantly around these themes. The structure is respected, but it doesn’t hinder creativity, it nurtures it.

The same can be applied to an organisation. Successful organisations today are those that nurture creativity in their people. Google is a good example of this. Creative staff at Google are given the opportunity to spend one day every week working on personal projects. They are encouraged to do this. Called Google Labs, this nurturing of creativity led to Google Maps and Google Goggle being developed. These labs are a key part of this multi-billion dollar company’s future business.

Flamenco also has a natural tendency toward trusting intuition rather than reason. It is rooted in a culture that is based on emotion and instinct. Master instrumentalists do not need to think about what their next notes will be, they follow through intuitively. Group performances are enhanced and realised through the intuition of the individual musicians who feel, rather than think about, where the music is going: this feeds into the whole, creating a more polished unity.

Greater unity and purpose is also an outcome for organisations that develop their employees through training and then trust them enough to allow them to make intuitive decisions. Steve Jobs swore by the power of intuition, believing that it had a major impact on his work rebuilding Apple.

Another key link lies in passion. Flamenco communicates strong, uninhibited feelings. It affects people. It is not so much interested in beautiful sounds or movements as in the strength and force of expression. Imitating this, organisations which have a strong business purpose such as changing people’s lives, could well conclude that being transparent in communication is more important than focusing solely on selling products or services.

Facebook’s intent, according to the Company’s mission statement, is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. No product to sell, yet, a billion dollar company. Passion precedes profit.

And lastly it is about courage. In flamenco there is a strong focus on courage, lucidity and a deliberate will to live; a fight with our limitations. This is the mindset that breeds innovation. The courage to do big things is what drives their actualisation, even in times of extreme limitation.

Looking again at Google Labs, courage is the other great attribute in the company’s brilliance. Creativity would mean nothing without it. When one of the projects being developed in the Labs seems and feels like a good idea there is no over-testing its viability or over-rationalising why or if it could work, the idea is simply taken to the user. If it works, great; if it doesn’t, scrap it and move on. It takes courage to really innovate and succeed.

In summary, flamenco is a way of living; it is multi-dimensional, co-created, emergent and fearless. All of these are characteristics of the holistic organisation, the successful organisation of the future. To compete in business today companies and organisations have to be made of stuff that wasn’t part of the old world of business. New stuff, soulful and dangerous, seemingly strange and out of place at first, but absolutely a winning formula for a world thriving on innovation.

PS: To see a presentation on flamenco in action and its relationship to business management check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fix85CascDk

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Is the MBA keeping up with the needs of business?

The MBA business is still booming, in South Africa and globally, mostly because the degree is still widely seen as an investment that brings value to graduates throughout their careers.

The latest research from the Graduate Management Admission Council shows that 92% of 2012 business school graduates found employment within three months of graduation, and 76% of international employers surveyed planned to hire MBAs in 2013.

Other research paints a similarly rosy picture, demonstrating that the MBA continues to open doors to more senior roles and increased earning power.

Good news for business schools. But while research suggests that the MBA remains relevant, it also points to another trend, that not all business schools may be able to respond to changes in the business environment fast enough. While earning power remains an important concern, one in five MBA graduates surveyed stated that sustainable or responsible management insights are the most important thing they want from their MBA.

The numbers are even higher closer to home. A survey of the 2013 class of MBAs at the UCT GSB revealed that 60% see sustainability and social innovation and entrepreneurship, as a key concern.

Sustainability has become an important business goal worldwide. For emerging economies, the need is even greater. Africa needs leaders who can rapidly advance organisations, without destroying social and environmental capital in the process. The number of MBAs with such skills doesn’t come close to matching the need. Business schools have some ground to make up here.

The task of ensuring that business leaders and professionals have the skills they need to take their companies forward into a sustainable economy is potentially the most pressing challenge that business schools are likely to face over the next few years.

The awareness is there, but the ambiguity of the actual skills that business schools need to teach in sustainable business education makes matters more difficult. In preparing an MBA curriculum to meet these demands, business schools must go beyond the concept of sustainable business and think about inclusive business, ie business with a wider positive impact.

At the same time business schools need to foster in students a mindset that is flexible and responsive so that they can deal with complexity, uncertainty and the inequality inherent in the world today. The leadership qualities that businesses want, can be taught. But for the most part they have to be taught practically. Business schools need to put students in small groups and have them work through leadership tasks collaboratively; taking their own experiences and applying them, while at the same time drawing on the expertise of the faculty.

There are a handful of business schools making progress in this direction. The Inspirational Guide for the Implementation of Principles for Responsible Management Education, an initiative of the United Nations Global Compact, published last year, highlights 64 schools around the world leading the way in this regard. The GSB is in there for its Social Innovation Lab, a stream of our MBA run by the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which offers an integrated platform threading together teaching, field work and design thinking around social innovation.

There are many MBAs who want to use their talent and creativity to change the way the world is run. The responsibility lies with business schools to use the MBA and other programmes to give them the insights and capabilities to build better organisations. If we don’t do this we risk becoming irrelevant — and the MBA too will lose its lustre.

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Designing a better future

Outside Cape Town International Airport, shiny banners inform those arriving in South Africa’s top tourist destination that they are now in the World Design Capital of 2014. Only a short distance away informal settlements sprawl next to the city’s highways, with cattle grazing and children playing amongst rubbish bags and exhaust fumes. The world of design appears to be far away.

But appearances can be deceptive. As Richard Perez, Director of the Cape Town World Design Capital 2014 says, design means different things to different people, but increasingly has come to refer to the creation of ideas and processes as much as to tangible structures and objects. He adds that part of living in a world design capital means finding new ways to resolve the same old problems we’ve had for decades in the city, such as segregation, unemployment, sanitation, and the effects of urbanisation.

The World Design Capital is an initiative of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, which aims to protect and promote professional industrial design. Considering that more than half the world now lives in cities, the challenge lies in how the cities cope. The organisation believes that the future success of each city depends on those who plan, design and manage the shared spaces and functions of their cities.

Winning the World Design Capital 2014 title means a year-long programme for Cape Town, which includes giving 450 projects, selected out of 1 300 submissions, the opportunity to get access to local and global creative industries.

Projects like Mellowcabs for instance, which develops small electric vehicles to ease traffic congestion, improve public transport integration, and cut down on carbon emissions by offering an urban transport solution for short distances of about 3 km. Or Thermotrap, which offers shack residents a product to help warm and insulate their homes and cuts down on condensation. And Edu-space, which develops modular furniture and accessories for classrooms to create a stimulating environment for holistic childhood development.

There are also less product-oriented projects such as the Inclusive Healthcare Innovation Summit, an initiative of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the GSB, which invited healthcare professionals from across the continent to grapple with re-imagining healthcare in an emerging context.

According to design thinker and professor at the GSB, Kosheek Sewchurran, design thinking encourages infusing intervention processes with more empathy, a focus on co-creation, and rapid prototyping. If such a process is adopted it’s likely that there will be a response to people’s most urgent needs.

Professor Sewchurran, who heads up the Executive MBA programme, explains that design thinking has emerged to allow for the creation of new options that are culturally and contextually relevant. He identifies housing, health, transport and education, which are among the biggest problem areas facing Cape Town, as offering the biggest opportunity for design thinking.

Perez, who did his Executive MBA at the GSB, agrees that if you want to foster innovation, then design thinking can be key. He cautions against impatience and expecting quick-fixes for a city that needs longer term, sustainable solutions. One year may not be enough time to build a stadium or a school that will directly benefit those living in the city’s informal settlements, but design thinking might filter through projects and change the way we approach issues. As World Design Capital 2014 we may not build new things this year, but we may step into a space where real benefits can be seen in 2017 and 2020.

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Improvement leads to significance

Receiving global acknowledgement, in just about any field, should not be taken as an end in itself. This holds most true for African business schools.

When the UCT Graduate School of Business received accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) last year, it placed the school amongst only 59 schools out of 13 670 in the world that have a triple-crown, ie that are accredited by the three largest and most influential business school accreditation associations: AACSB, the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the European Foundation for Management Development.

Triple-crowned, the GSB possibly could be forgiven for curling up on the warm blanket of global acceptance. But the truth is that having achieved this status brings with it a weight of responsibility, not only to continue delivering a world-class business education, but also to put Africa on the map, to lead the way for other schools on the continent. Currently there are just two African business schools on the triple accreditation list – the UCT GSB and the University of Stellenbosch business school.

We have learned from the accreditation process and feedback from the accreditation bodies that there are still a lot of misunderstandings about Africa and the role of African business schools. It is clear the world does not see Africa’s promise.

But, African business schools have a very important role to play in global economics, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. African business schools are spearheading emerging economy business thinking and have the opportunity to redesign tired old business models that don’t work so well in emerging markets, into models that focus on developing the base of the pyramid and creating shared value.

International recognition should not be about becoming more like other business schools in the world — we don’t want to recreate Harvard in Africa. Emerging economies need to address the specific challenges that they have. If we use our accreditations as quality improvement exercises, but keep our focus on our own context, I believe we’re on the right path.

We must raise the profile of emerging market business schools as centres of excellence and thought leadership, and provide local and international students with the skills they need to take on the challenges of this decade’s emerging markets. To do that, we need the rest of the world to take African business schools seriously.

More than just a marketing tool – as some have come to see them – accreditations give business schools the opportunity to assert themselves in the global market and to improve. The accreditation process, which takes several years in some cases, consists of rigorous internal review, evaluation and adjustment to ensure that the school provides a high quality teaching environment, is committed to continuous improvement, and remains relevant and responsive to the needs of business. And accredited schools undergo peer review every three to five years (depending on the accreditation) to maintain accreditation. For African business schools, this is welcomed and something considered worth striving for.

These accreditations are extremely valuable as an important investment in the quality of a business school. And it is the quality of the research and thinking at these business schools that will start to influence business on the continent and elsewhere.

We’ll play by others’ rules until we are masters at the game, and then together we’ll redefine the rules and the game and the world will come to know Africa’s worth.

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Will the world miss you when you’re gone?

On a rainy Wednesday morning in December, US president Barak Obama told the world that Nelson Mandela had set the bar high.

Now that our SA elections are behind us, it is irresistible to ask: how are we going to measure up? How will the legacy that the late, great Madiba left us be preserved in our country?

All members of political, business and civil society need to look at how far or near we are to that bar.

Too often the honest answer is: quite a distance. In business we are becoming more attuned to the need for more ethical business and perhaps we are more outspoken about those (Enron, Lehman Brothers, Libor) who fall so far short.

The corporate organisation, which was seen in past decades as the cornerstone of our economic system – stable, trustworthy, providing growth and employment for the advancement of society – now has a tarnished reputation. Although corporations have contributed to an increase of wealth in certain parts of the world, they have had a negative effect in others and have caused damage to many people and the environment. It’s time to remedy this.

What several recent scandals reveal is that as long as profits and shareholder value are put at the centre of business decision-making, we limit the potential of business to have a more positive impact on the world.

No-one is suggesting that business must do away with profit, rather that it should seek first to add value and then to make profits. We need a fundamental shift from Friedman-style economics of profit as the single motive for business, to finding innovative ways to focus first on people and the environment. Innovation, not exploitation, should drive business policy.

In a recent TED talk, Harish Manwani, COO of Unilever, put it well. “Companies cannot afford to be just innocent bystanders in what’s happening around them. They have to begin to play their role in terms of serving the communities that actually sustain them. We have to move to an and/and model. How do we make money AND do good? How do we make sure that we have a great business AND we also have a great environment about us?”

Manwani, correctly, thinks that leadership, more specifically values-based leadership, will play a key role in bringing about this shift. “Values and purpose are going to be the two drivers that are going to create the companies of tomorrow,” he said.

Companies and societies are in great need of leaders who are able to refocus their organisations on the task of adding value to society through meaningful, purposeful and inclusive business while also creating wealth. This means finding ways to contribute to the development of the economy and society in which they are operating, whether rich or poor, mature or emerging. This is when business will realise real power for good.

There are many examples of this, from multinationals like Unilever who sell soap and also run the world’s largest hygiene and health programme, to small social entrepreneurs like SavvyLoo, a South African start-up and one of the finalist in the 2013 Innovation Prize for Africa.

The most commonly held view about Nelson Mandela is that he was a leader who embodied values. He refused to budge on his deepest beliefs in unity, freedom and justice, and this is largely why he has earned the respect of such divergent groups of people from all corners of the planet. Of course, we can’t all be Mandela – and neither should we want to be. Imitating him is not enough. As a scholar of values-based leadership, Harry M Jansen Kraemer Jr says: “becoming the best kind of leader isn’t about emulating a role model or a historic figure. Rather, your leadership must be rooted in who you are and what matters most to you.”

Values-based leadership is intensely personal. It is about self-reflection, courage, honesty and humility. It is about understanding the balance between your needs and those of others. In business, as in government and other sectors, it should be about creating organisations and institutions that people can’t do without.

In trying to assess whether we are measuring up to the bar that Mandela has set us, we should ask ourselves the question: If our business went bankrupt or our organisation closed down tomorrow, what would be missing from society? And if the answer is nothing, then we are most likely not adding the value that we could and should.

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While we cannot teach entrepreneurship, we can do so many interesting things

I have just returned from the EFMD in Africa conference (in Dakar), which had as its theme: “Entrepreneurship and Management Education in Africa: are we miseducating our students?” I find it very interesting to learn from the very many experiments that Africa is rich in. And while we all agree that we cannot teach entrepreneurship, there is an awful lot we can do nevertheless.

We know we cannot teach mathematics to everyone, and nevertheless we continue trying to do so. We seem to think that even catching some of it might be interesting. For sure this will be no different with entrepreneurship. We understand that supporting an entrepreneurial culture, most probably, needs to be situated at the level of secondary schools. Experiments on that level seem to work out better, and the learning culture inspired in the secondary school is a strong feeder for the learning culture at university anyway. Introducing entrepreneurship at university or business school, might be entirely too late.

Other than by trying to teach entrepreneurship, we could do our economies a lot of good by training our students in entrepreneuring: fostering an attitude oriented towards taking action, responsibility, developing projects, with a clear focus on business model innovation. We do not need to invent technology all the time, there is enough out there, we only need to train our students to use that technology purposefully. We need to showcase to our students how business, if entrepreneurial and innovative, can contribute towards job creation.

As business schools (B-schools) we most probably should not pay attention to survival entrepreneurship, necessity entrepreneurship. Business schools should concentrate on the so-called forgotten middle: the businesses employing up to 50 people. We need to train our students to become relevant business leaders in our emerging markets. We need to help them discover how successful businesses can be built in an emerging market, which will often go via business model innovation, but with a clear focus on inclusiveness. We need to inspire them with the mindset, the initiative and the motivation to become excellent in entrepreneuring, not necessarily in entrepreneurship (the creation of one’s own company).

A second major focus where business schools could be of use to students is in inspiring them and training them in a more community-development focus. The supportive community and the integration of small businesses in the supply chains of the bigger companies; that is what we need to develop in African entrepreneurship. B-schools could train their students to play a role on a community level, supporting a series of smaller companies. A particular corporate form, the co-operative, has proven to be very successful in talking about inclusion, but also when considering how to survive in the financial crisis. Some major companies in the world are co-operatives (a very popular formula in the agriculture business, for instance, just think of the Rabobank, a successful internationally operating bank). But the co-operative, and how to manage in a co-operative structure, gets very little attention in B-schools.

And maybe we should stop making it all so romantic. Last week a lot of people in South African received from Penguin (to support their relaunch) a book about a very successful business person. The book is titled something like: “selling from the boot of the car”, and gives yet another heroic story of a person who indeed succeeded in becoming rich. B-schools should question whether they are there to teach people how to become rich (for which very often a PhD does not help, and hence we recruit the wrong people), or whether we should equip people to make a lasting positive impact in their economies. I am not sure whether the latter can be done from the boot for the car.

While we cannot teach entrepreneurship, and we should not even try to do so, we can support students in their entrepreneuring; in experiencing how to innovate business models, in managing community-based projects, in learning the ins and outs of co-operatives, and so much more. And we will need to do so by having students experiment much more, while being much closer to the real market. But that means that we might need to innovate ourselves.

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The one dimensional man

It has been a while since I last posted a blog. Thinking about why, I guess it has to do with the load of unimaginable things that came over us during the last few months. One wonders what use it is to comment, when clearly the speed of misconduct is increasing, and becomes increasingly unimaginable. Anyway, here we are again. I would like to start, as a general introduction, with the very first paragraph of our new book: “Values Based Leadership in Business Model Innovation”, Baets and Oldenboom, Bookboon, 2013, (which is a free downloadable internet book).

“Increasingly managers, politicians and the wider public start agreeing that the never-ending story of misbehaviour, unethical behaviour, fraud, poor service delivery, etc, mainly in business, is unworthy of the 21st century. For years the corporation was kind of the cornerstone of our economic system, stable, trustworthy, taking care of growth, creating employment. All this, of course, for the benefit of society. And arguably, corporate development, business development has contributed to the increase of wealth, at least in parts of the society, and parts of the world. At the same time this often had negative effects for others parts of society, and in other parts of the world. Overall, however, until roughly a decade ago, we did not know the scandals and brutalities that we have known over the last decade, probably starting with the Enron case. Books have been written about these scandals, analyses have been made, correcting measures have been taken, but not a lot has changed. The Libor manipulation, which for the time being is the latest one in a long series, goes beyond imagination. Why is it so difficult to change? But, maybe in the first place, do we have an interest in change, and who are ‘we’?”

That some users were monitored, and mostly not the terrorists amongst us, is not news. It is as old as myself, and it happened in all countries in the world; in Russia, of course, the former Eastern Germany, China, who in a way were more public about it than countries like, say Belgium (just to talk about those I know). It happened, it had political and economic reasons, but it happened on “reasonable” scales. That did not make it more ethical, it did not make it more acceptable. But, the taxpayer did not pay an awful lot for getting nothing. Say it was the hobby horse of a few. One could call it folklore, part of “democracy”, or any other word you would like to give it. My surprise was great, however, when suddenly it appears that the NSA is following tens of millions of phone calls and internet messages of innocent people all over the world. One cannot even imagine the size of this scandal. Worse, they are allies and we suddenly learn that the British spy on the Belgians (no, this is not a James Bond movie, and no, we are not in the cold war era. Or are we?). And how involved are our telecom providers, the Google’s, Facebook’s, Apple’s, etc?

This raises more than a few issues. Who controls the controllers? Who decides who to spy on, and what happens with the outcomes? Of course, politicians all say they are not aware and so say the CEOs of companies and services that HAVE to be (for technical reasons) involved. A service (what’s in a word) like the NSA is able to beef up a programme into the billions no doubt, with no apparent purpose, no apparent approval, and apparently without any “elected” responsible person being aware. Taxpayers, be aware of what your money is serving. Oh yes, by the way, I also learned that some of South Africa’s wealthy are very proud that they do not pay taxes, in a country where there are “some” issues that need redress. No comment, it speaks for itself, but do not be surprised that it is difficult to attract foreign direct investment into a country where the “better” part of that economy is pulling itself out. Simple, no? Back to the spies.

The scandal, that is what I would like to call it, has many dimensions. Who controls who, what is the purpose of spying (terrorism seems a bit too easy), who pays for this, and how is it possible that a service can decide all by itself to do “whatever”, which goes even against the Constitution? But more surprising is that the few people that seem to have a kind of a consciousness, and feel that this should be known, suddenly become the victims. Snowden, who brought all this out into the public, is the criminal, the enemy number one, instead of the real criminals. Snowden has to be punished, but what for? For serving his constitution, for protecting his allies (yes, the Europeans at the least)? Then we get the British Prime Minister Cameron threatening the press for publishing any further information. Isn’t it the role of the press to inform the public, particularly when the parliament fails. Instead of apologies, instead of actions to protect the citizens, we only get a clear-cut threat for publishing information. If we thought that the South African Information Bill was an issue, in the UK they don’t even need such a bill obviously.

I would be interested to learn more about it, but I am sure that we will not be able to do so. We will not know who or what is behind all this, but the size is just scandalous. All this while in the banking business the same story continues over the past five years. Good old stories just continue. We move from scandal to scandal. My retirement fund (in the Netherlands) informs me that my retirement will go down, due to bad management of the investment fund. One would expect that some of the fund managers would be replaced, at least, but no, the poor buggers can’t help it. It is the market. And we continue paying bonuses for performance that according to any standards, in any industry, would be “under-performing”. Still too much of the banking industry is bailed out by governments, and the only thing banks can do (the new chairman of the ING) is complain about this. If government would not have done that a few years ago, they might not have existed anymore today. Bankers, please become realistic, and stick to your profession. We need well-operating banks. However, some professionalism in that sector would do some good.

But possibly most shocking (for me) was the announcement that now, also, the Rabobank is guilty of manipulation of the Libor. I thought (see intro to our book) that it could not become much worse after that announcement a few years ago, but no, the Rabobank is also part of it. Until recently I always used them as an example of a “good” bank, a co-operative, of not having been taken hostage by its shareholders, of having a clear focus on adding valued, etc, etc. And now this: it cannot become much worse. And they don’t have the excuse that it was the shareholders; they don’t have any. Of course, the management was not aware. But people are not born bad, or born unethical. Society has made them like that. We business schools play a role in that, and I am again surprised that the new dean of HEC in France thinks we are in the crisis for nothing. We teach the right things (with which I disagree profoundly), it is just some people who are unethical and “tempted” by greed (any pastor in a Sunday church service could learn something from his argument). The society, our paradigm, the values we teach (or we don’t teach maybe), the reward systems of banks, all contribute to turning responsible people into hugely unethical people. If it goes unseen, they cash huge bonuses. Sometimes it goes wrong, but management is never aware. No problem, clients, the bank is doing well.

As a thought, allow me to quote Chief John Fire Lame Deer:

“Before our white brothers arrived to make us civilised men, we didn’t have any kind of prison. Because of this, we had no delinquents. Without a prison, there can be no delinquents. We had no locks nor keys and therefore among us there were no thieves. When someone was so poor that he couldn’t afford a horse, a tent or a blanket, he would, in that case, receive it all as a gift. We were too uncivilised to give great importance to private property. We didn’t know any kind of money and consequently, the value of a human being was not determined by his wealth. We had no written laws laid down, no lawyers, no politicians, therefore we were not able to cheat and swindle one another. We were really in bad shape before the white men arrived and I don’t know how to explain how we were able to manage without these fundamental things that (so they tell us) are so necessary for a civilised society”.

More recently written in 1964, Herbert Marcuse’s book “The one-dimensional man”, may be a must-read today. It is a criticism on both capitalism and communism (yes that was in those days the big enemy, and the world would be so much better if that would not exist anymore??). It announced a logical progression towards a world of consumerism, without any value proposition, in order to serve a limited number of people (those in power). He also expected a world in which there is no sense of the important and the non-important anymore. And indeed, do watch CNN, or any news chain, for that matter, where minor issues are blown up out of proportion, and real major disasters get just as much attention as any “fait divers”. We cannot make the distinction anymore between real issues, and minor issues. We concentrate on our duty of consumerism and wealth gathering.

Two other books, old indeed, that might be interesting to re-read, or for the younger people to read, are: George Orwell, 1945, “Animal Farm”, an allegory on the Soviet Union, but in the absence of the Soviet Union, perfectly applicable to almost any country today. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”, writes Orwell. And “1984”, again from Orwell, published in 1949, anticipating that in 1984 “Big brother” would be watching us everywhere, and take over society from a democratically elected body. How far are we away from this situation, which for many in those days seemed impossible.

More than ever, we have to make sure that each of us, in any circumstance, lives up to the categorical imperative of Kant: “Act so that the basis of your action, could serve as a general rule”. More applied to business and society, you might want to have a look at the book we published recently and mentioned earlier: “Values Based Leadership in Business Model Innovation”. It is possible, we are very glad to help you with it, but it is you who has to get up in the morning and decide you want to be of value to society. And if all this is too much, use my wife’s rule: If you take a decision that you happily and proudly would share with your children and grandchildren, you are probably doing good. If you cannot share it, think twice.

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Learn more about Full Colour Thinking

For those who want to learn more about Full Color thinking, and about what we (Erna and me) are going to deal with in the seminar later this year, do listen to this interview: http://youtu.be/hhcZ1C6XtBA

And then, just enrol in the seminar.

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