Tag Archives: corporate power

The Social Costs of the Hardware Revolution – A Postscript

For now, this can be only a short postscript to what I had to say earlier today about the CNN Money article by John Hagel and John Seely-Brown on “the hardware revolution.” It has to do with a question that occurred to me as I read, and to which I don’t yet have anything like an adequate answer. That will take some research. But I at least want to articulate the question.

Startups and smaller companies can now play in the hardware space in part because the barriers to entry have been lowered, Hagel and Seely-Brown observe. There are a number of factors at work here. New and cheaper technologies from 3D printers to more user-friendly software put the design and manufacture of hardware within reach of smaller companies. And “a new class of factories” will produce the smaller orders that new entrants and entrepreneurs typically require:

New infrastructural elements have also helped new hardware products move from the hobbyist’s basement to the startup garage. Before, to get a contract manufacturer’s attention, you had to commit to producing high volumes (say 50,000 or more units). But a new class of factories — mostly in China and Mexico — will manufacture batches as small as 5,000 units. By filling low-volume orders, these factories have filled an important structural hole in the market: They allow entrepreneurs to launch new products for small consumer groups with little investment.

My question is whether conditions and, for that matter, sourcing practices in this new class of factories, and the more fluid hardware market they serve, are not going to be terribly difficult to monitor. We’ve seen how challenging it is even to ensure fair labor practices in large-scale manufacturing facilities in China used by major global technology brands; now, as smaller-scale manufacturing facilities proliferate and Mexico becomes a technology “quicksourcing” destination for American companies, the problem will no doubt be aggravated.

The reasons for this are probably obvious. I would frame the issue in a few ways. First, how much visibility do these smaller players actually have into their supply chains? Second, how much leverage do they actually have with their manufacturers, since they are only placing small orders, and, depending on their success, may or may not be repeat customers? Third, there’s a question about whether these small businesses — the small hardware startups placing orders and, for that matter, the manufacturing facilities taking them — have the capacity to take on the human rights challenges that seem inevitably to accompany outsourcing.

In other words, the social costs of the hardware revolution deserve some careful consideration.

Rio Tinto and the Rhetoric of Respect – Notes from the 2013 AGM

“Your mining is not unproblematic.” That understatement nicely summed up the Rio Tinto Annual General Meeting held yesterday morning in London. But by the time a representative from the London Mining Network had uttered it near the end of the question period, Rio Tinto Chairman Jan du Plessis appeared to have stopped listening.

Up to that point it had been a lively and contentious meeting. Shareholders were miffed about the company’s blunders in Mozambique and the Alcan write off and confused by the executive compensation scheme. Some wanted to know why Tom Albanese wasn’t there to answer for the company’s troubles in 2012, when he was still CEO; another said it was time to stop scapegoating Albanese, and hold the board accountable: “every few years,” he said, we have “a resounding chaotic blunder…What has the board done?”

They were not the only ones to talk about blunders and bad decisions that put the company at risk. Activists, environmentalists and indigenous leaders who attended the meeting testified to the destructive effects of Rio Tinto’s large-scale industrial mining operations on the land, local communities, and traditional ways of life. These speakers all said they and the groups they represent would continue to oppose the company. In fact, their opposition is only growing; a couple even suggested that Rio Tinto could start cutting costs (a big priority for the mining giant right now) by abandoning or divesting from places where mining operations are not welcome. The message to shareholders was clear: protests, lawsuits and continued local opposition will put projects at risk, disrupt schedules and cost money.

Did the board get the message? Not likely. When an Alaskan Yupik elder spoke in opposition to the Pebble Mine project and urged the company to divest, Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh thanked him for his “sincerity” and both du Plessis and Walsh complimented the elder on how “articulate” he was. It was a patronizing gesture, a pat on the head, not serious engagement. There were some further comments shouted from the audience but du Plessis shut the discussion down and moved to the next question.

Du Plessis repeated a talking point about how much he respects those who had to travel long distances to attend the meeting, but (as I saw it) this was an effort to recover from a stumble. Only minutes earlier he had impatiently dismissed a question about the Eagle Mine – citing “shoddy environmental protections,” poor design work, “fraudulently issued permits,” and the fact that the mine desecrates ground sacred to the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwe — as “not particularly new.” He was having none of it.

There was lots of talk at the meeting about respect, and I’m afraid “respect” is becoming a word corporate boards use to deflect criticism and politely dismiss human rights, environmental and ethical issues. (Whether this is the unfortunate rhetorical fallout of the Ruggie Protect-Respect-Remedy human rights framework is a question for another day.)

For example, when asked what Rio Tinto has done to improve the lot of miners in South Africa, du Plessis responded that the company has developed “very healthy, respectful relationships not just with employees but with the community” in its South African operations. But what sorts of real commitments do those relationships entail? While the company is “not anti-union” –Walsh rejected that characterization — it nevertheless wants a free hand to “maintain direct contact with all our employees” for the sake of safety, efficiency, and (Walsh iced the cake with this) “value.”

One participant said that he couldn’t see how Rio Tinto reconciled its “corporate rhetoric” with its “actions on the ground.” At Oak Flat in Arizona, he went on to explain, Rio Tinto is trying to gain control of public lands sacred to the Apache. The reply was (again): “we will be respectful.” The company would like to “open up direct dialogue” on the Oak Flat project; the trouble is, dialogue can only be direct and truly respectful if the other party actually has an opportunity to be heard and – this is important — heeded.

Dialogue, community engagement, respect, responsibility – all these were floated at the meeting as remedies to the many problems communities face when Rio Tinto moves in. But what doesn’t get taken into account is that the company and these communities are not on equal footing. Nowhere near it. Rio Tinto has enormous influence and power, billions to invest, and – it should not be forgotten – shareholders who want a return on their investment.

So, during the question period, a woman representing Mongolian herders who will be displaced and deprived of water by Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi project spoke eloquently about a looming “catastrophe.” She had a soft voice that trembled a little as she spoke. Walsh listened, thanked her for traveling all that way to speak, and then replied that in Mongolia (as in Michigan and elsewhere) the company has “developed a participatory environmental water monitoring program.” If you see something, say something, I guess.

Never mind that she had just finished telling him about the threat of toxic leaks, environmental damage, pollution and river diversion. The IFC and “the people of Mongolia,” Walsh said, will hold Rio Tinto to account. He can’t really believe they will. The community of herders has little recourse and not even a fraction of the power Rio Tinto has; and Oyu Tolgoi, when completed, will account for 36 percent of Mongolia’s GDP. The scales are hopelessly tipped in Rio Tinto’s favor.

Maybe the question period of a shareholders meeting is not the place to have constructive dialogue on serious issues. Maybe those conversations have to happen after the meeting is over, or even behind closed doors. But if and when they do happen, will Rio Tinto really be listening?

Can JP Morgan Manage Its Human Rights Risk?

No one questions Jamie Dimon’s competence. It’s just not clear that Mr. Dimon or “any executive,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, “can properly oversee such a large financial institution” as JP Morgan Chase. The complexity of the bank’s balance sheet and the scale and scope of its investments boggle even the best minds. The London Whale losses demonstrate pretty clearly that it’s possible for the bank to overlook, or miss or ignore serious exposure – to do something stupid or sloppy, as Dimon likes to put it. I wonder how many shareholders now wish they could re-cast their vote for an independent chair, to check and govern the CEO; and I wonder, too, how many will question the bank’s claim that it is capable of managing the human rights risk in its portfolio of investments.

As I pointed out in a previous post, most boards reject human rights proposals on three grounds: that they would be restrictive, burdensome, or redundant. The JP Morgan board stuck pretty close to this script in urging shareholders to vote against a resolution for a “genocide-free” investing policy, which would ensure that its investments did not “substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity, the most egregious violations of human rights, and to assist customers in avoiding the inadvertent inclusion of investments in such companies in their portfolios.” (You can read proposal 8 and the board’s response in the proxy statement here [pdf]).

Most immediately at issue are the banks investments in PetroChina and its subsidiary China National Petroleum Corporation, which pose “high risk due to their ties to the Sudanese government and its connection to human rights abuses.” That is not the hyperbolical cry of some outraged human rights advocate, but the sober and clear-eyed assessment of the board at T. Rowe Price; they joined 27 US states, 61 colleges and universities and the European Parliament’s pension fund in their decision to divest from PetroChina. JP Morgan, on the other hand, “increased holdings of PetroChina after being made aware of PetroChina’s connection to genocide,” CNN reports; and this year, again, the board confidently – some might now say arrogantly – asserted its ability to manage human rights risks:

 We use our extensive risk management processes and procedures to consider human rights and other reputational issues associated with our businesses….The Firm has a robust risk management framework…, and management routinely reviews specific business clients and transactions including where appropriate for consistency with our Human Rights Statement.

This year, the board had its way. The “genocide-free” proposal went down in defeat, garnering only 9.2 percent of the vote (which, by the way, means it’s not going away any time soon.) But the losses in London, which could run as high as five billion and will be difficult to unravel, give the lie to the board’s argument that further human rights risk review would be merely redundant. To the contrary, the losses raise serious questions about the bank’s ability to manage risk — of any and every kind. Its much-touted risk management framework does not seem so “robust” as the board makes it out to be. And it appears Ina Drew and crew operated without routine reviews or oversight. How, then, can the bank ensure that its investments in PetroChina and around the world are not exposing investors to other, more serious risks?

I refuse to believe that most investors don’t mind blood on their money; their confidence should be shaken.

As for Jamie Dimon, London harbored his white whale. China may turn out to be his human rights dragon. It’s said that when he first discovered the extent of the losses in London he could not catch his breath. Imagine what might happen if Jamie Dimon really understood the atrocities in Sudan and the part JP Morgan has played in them.

A Second Note on The First CEO: the CEO As Agent of Historical Change

Susy Jackson, an editor at Harvard Business Review, emailed me last week to tell me that she and her colleagues had discovered an illustration of the acronym “CEO” that predates the early instances discussed in my previous post on this subject.  Time to update that post and, while we’re at it, the entry on CEO in the Oxford English Dictionary. (I’ve emailed them to let them know).

A search through the HBR archives (one of Jackson’s colleagues described it as “not really very scientific, but fun”) turned up an article in the May June-1970 issue of HBR by Joseph O Eastlack, Jr. and and Phillip R. McDonald entitled “The Role of the CEO in Corporate Growth.” As we might expect, the article takes care to spell out and abbreviate the term in its first use: “chief executive officer (CEO)”; the speculation is that this was “standard treatment for a term that was thought to be known to HBR readers, but not so familiar that they could dispense with spelling it out altogether.” In 1970, after all, the CEO had just arrived on the scene.

A few thoughts about that entrance.

In my previous post I speculated that the term CEO may have come into wider use at HBR under the editorial direction of Ralph Lewis, who was appointed editor in chief in 1971, and oversaw several changes in editorial direction. This 1970 illustration of CEO predates that appointment; Edward Bursk was the editor in chief of HBR in 1970. Still, there’s no doubt HBR under Lewis’ direction helped define and disseminate the term.

Whether this more frequent recourse to the acronym in the pages of HBR was the result of Lewis’ policy or just a sign of the currency the acronym was gaining in management and governance discourse is hard to say. But it’s pretty clear that the wide acceptance of the acronym in the 1970s marks a shift – not just in editorial convention, but also in ideas about governance, leadership and power, within and without the corporation. By the mid to late 1970s, CEO is well on its way to becoming not just a convenient tag but an important construct of corporate power, social status and (by the 1980s) cultural celebrity.

The temptation to start painting on a broader canvas is almost irresistible. After all, big things are happening in the early 1970s, in business, in American society, around the world. When the figure of the CEO emerges in the 1970s, the heyday of the man in the gray flannel suit has reached its nadir. In America and throughout the industrialized West, the postwar boom – which witnessed the rise of the managerial class – has yielded to a grim post-industrial reality.

Indeed, the CEO will be one of the defining figures of the period that runs from roughly 1970 to 2010, the post-industrial period. In response to falling profit rates in manufacturing, we see during this period “a shift from productive enterprise to financial manipulation” (as Chomsky, summarizing economic historian Robert Bremmer, recently put it); I think it’s no coincidence that with the arrival of the CEO on the scene, the “financialization” of the economy has begun. (I understand the word is controversial; but let it stand for now: these are just broad strokes.)

The CEO emerges from this shift. He is its creature and creator – an agent entrusted with its execution – and the period of the CEO’s glory extends from the triumph of neo-liberalism during the Reagan-Thatcher era all the way to the financial crisis of 2008 and the institutional failures and social collapse it precipitates.

Ask Is A Verb

If you have spent any time in conference rooms or on conference calls, you have no doubt arrived at the moment when someone, usually the person who commands the most authority in the room, articulates “the ask” of the meeting. Or someone will ask, “what is the ask?” and this poor excuse for a question will snap everyone to attention, demonstrating that they regarded most of what went before as inconsequential blather. They were merely awaiting their orders.

Against this slide into jargon – and it’s fair to talk about it as a slide, an intellectually lazy lapse into the jargon of bureaucratic command– it is important to assert: ask is a verb. Why? Because verbs describe and denote action, and asking is a special action – an action that initiates and coordinates new action (on a very basic level, the discussion of the request, the coordination of the actors who will attempt to satisfy the request.) Asking is a way to begin, and beginnings are the prerogative not just of nominal leaders, but of all human beings.

When a designated leader, or anyone, for that matter, talks about “the ask,” they are turning a verb into a noun, an action into a thing – into a command, more precisely, and depriving asking of its native connection to action. They are not interested in beginnings, but in ends, the outcome they already have in mind. At the level of the sentence, “the ask” or “my ask” obscures the basic relationship that the verb “to ask” usually creates between a petitioner (the person doing the asking) and a respondent (the one of whom a thing is asked), and converts that very fragile and mutable relationship, that conversation about the world and what we should do together, into a superior’s control over a subordinate.

When you ask someone to do something you will elicit a response. The response can be a simple yes or no; and the number one rule of asking  — of being a petitioner — is “always take no for an answer.” In other words, be prepared to listen, engage and adapt. Asking someone to do something – as opposed to ordering them to do it – is to initiate an event whose outcome is unpredictable. The request is fraught with possibility, uncertainty, promise. That is because when you ask, you implicitly acknowledge the independence and autonomy of the other – recognizing them as an agent capable of their own beginnings. When you command, you forgo that recognition, and the respect that goes along with it, to remind the other of his subordination, and treat him as an instrument of your will, a means to your own ends.

This little piece of jargon creates a big moral muddle, but sometimes a muddle is exactly what bureaucrats want to create because they are unwilling to assume the responsibility of command, they are averse to risk (beginnings are always risky), or they are just cowardly.  “The ask” preserves hierarchy without acknowledging power relations. It involves phony respect for the other: I am not petitioner asking you, the respondent, to do something; there is an object called “the ask” that we must address. It comes from nowhere, really; its origin is unclear, but our duty is clear.  That request from nowhere or at least nobody also keeps power relations, the status quo, intact. The course is set. Things have already begun; the task now is to complete them. So “the ask” works as a hedge against change, against doing something really new; it short-circuits the conversation, shuts down dialogue, and enlists others not as collaborators but as a pair of hands to get a job done.

I suppose that’s not so surprising in a context where the point is execution of an already-decided objective or plan, not debate; but without debate or deliberation a plan or objective will lack meaning for those asked to carry it out. They won’t have had a chance to figure out for themselves the best way to carry it out, whether they are the right people to carry it out, or whether it ought to be carried out at all.