Charles Handy
The Unintended Consequences of a Good Idea - Page 2

They may not last, of course, those towers. The office in one of them where I once sat is now the living room of a smart apartment block. It is fashionable for some of them to prefer a campus to a tower, looking more like a university and structured, often, like one as well. But even these campuses will be surrounded by high fences, with guards on the gates, still off-limits to the ordinary citizen, still mysterious, still answerable to no-one save themselves and their investors. The ‘cui bono?’ question – for whose benefit – is still begging. Of course, that is not the way all those mostly well-meaning people on the inside see it. They are just doing their best in a difficult world. That’s what KingCharles 1 thought too.

Francis Fukuyama and others have argued, and many statesmen have assumed, that a combination of liberal democracy and open market capitalism would be the ultimate answer for a successful society. But democracy and capitalism can be uneasy bedfellows. If capitalism is not seen to be working for the demos the demos could destroy it. Not by revolution, but by entangling it in so many restrictions and requirements that its vigour would be irreparably damaged. In recent times, to the passers-by, those towers or barricaded campuses do not seem to be working for anyone’s good but their own. Ironically, that feeling is strongest in the developing world where the beneficial effects of capitalism are most needed.

We do urgently need a cultural shift in the way corporations behave and the way they are perceived in the wider society. Sadly, governments, in my experience, do not move until they believe that their moves will be welcomed by a substantial section of the voting public. Change, therefore, has to come from the outside, from the key participants, from opinion formers and activists, from people like us, people who can see the shape of the wood even when in the midst of the trees. Peter Drucker was one of those people. His perspectives are needed now more than ever.

How did it get this way? How did such historically good ideas get corrupted? How can we rescue the good and eliminate the bad? There is a pile of good ideas already on the table. Transparency, Accountability and Governance Structures are probably top of the list but I worry more about the big question which sits underneath these more technical issues. What is a business for, or even, perhaps, who is it for? More concretely, how should a business define success, and how measure it?

If one takes the trouble to look deep into Company Law it is clear that the corporation has much more freedom than some would previously have granted it to define its own destiny, and that there is a plethora of different models to choose from. They are not, as some assume, the vassals of their shareholders, whose legal rights only extend to the appointment of a Board, and to the remaining assets of the business on its break-up after all other claimants have been paid. I am secretly pleased that the spate of scandals in recent years, the pain caused to ordinary people by the sub-prime mortgage debacle and the looming problems of climate change have begun to arouse the interest of the previously unconcerned. Cultural change needs triggers to get it started, then it needs its advocates and its pioneers to get it moving until, finally, governments put their seal upon the new arrangements.