In two weeks time we will be running another workshop at Singapore Management University. Following the success of a similar event in November, we are repeating the format but with some additional fresh insights from the new Future Agenda website. Hosted by the SMU Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, this event promises to again attract a superb mix of talent who together will identify a number of emerging global innovation opportunities and then build potential new business concepts around them. Adopting an accelerated innovation lab approach used with other leading organisations, it will be an immersive, fast paced experience where we cover several weeks of usual activity in less than 48 hours. As well as SMU faculty and alumni, this workshop is also open to the public via the website.
Big business has become disconnected from the broader society within which it operates. A narrow focus on short-term returns has prevented businesses from investing in innovation to foster long-term sustainable growth.
The common understanding of the purpose of publicly listed companies, particularly in Anglo-American markets, is that they exist to maximize shareholder value. Publicly listed companies are under tremendous pressure from activist shareholders, takeover threats, and general market dynamics to generate short-term value by spinning off parts of the company, buying back shares, and laying off staff. External pressure is compounded by executive compensation schemes that are heavily weighted towards stock options. In theory, incentive compensation systems should reduce agency costs so that managers will act in the interests of shareholders. In practice, they create perverse incentives to extract value from the company at the expense of customers, employees, organizational health, the community in which the business operates, and ultimately society as a whole.
A number of unintended consequences result, including:
- The failure of companies to adequately consider and respond to societal challenges, such as environmental damage and climate change, due to the perceived cost;
- Erosion of trust between society and the corporate sector, including the role of corporations in shaping public policy, which in turn leads to a loss of trust in democratic processes; and
- Firm mismanagement through stock manipulation, insider trading and tax evasion, with a number of associated firm-level and macroeconomic risks including treating employees as disposable; undermining investment, research and development; hollowing out whole organisations; turning executives into caricatures of self-interest and greed powered by narrowly focused remuneration schemes; focusing talent in the corporate world on systematically extracting value rather than creating it; stock price manipulation; and fueling market failure and economic crash.
Inequality has greatly increased in the last twenty years, in part due to the failure to translate corporate profits into increased salaries across the firm. Even as worker productivity has continued to rise, real worker wages have essentially flat-lined. At the same time, executive compensation has markedly increased due to the afore-mentioned stock option schemes. Rising inequality within companies has in turn contributed to macro-level inequality that threatens to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of a privileged few.
The biggest questions we face go to the very core of business: what is the purpose of the corporation, and specifically of the large listed company with dispersed shareholders? Will the current model of large publicly listed companies survive the next decade, and if not, what will it be replaced by?
Another question is about the alternatives to public companies, such as B-corporations, co-operatives, companies controlled by foundations, privately held companies, partnerships and family-owned businesses. Many of these alternatives have shown themselves to be capable substitutes for corporate bodies, but will they pick up momentum and drive the way forward? Will they eventually eclipse publicly listed companies? Research by the CFA Institute shows that global equity listings have declined by 17% between 1998 and the end of 2012, from 56,119 to 46,674. US stock exchanges were hardest hit, losing nearly 50% of their listings from their high of 9,253 in 1997. Europe has also seen a significant decline of 23% of its listed companies, while Asian exchanges have seen the least change with less than 5% lost. Given the sharp decline in number and longevity of public companies, it is unsurprising that many ask if a model of public limited company will survive the next decade.
Perhaps the most pressing issue today for financial regulators is the question of how to address short-termism in the markets and its significant influence on the strategies of public companies. It is widely acknowledged that an excessive focus on quarterly returns fed into the 2008 crisis but opinions vary widely on the causes of and solutions to short-termism. What is the role of financial markets and investors in promoting responsible capitalism? Can we turn institutional investors into patient capital, willing to invest in innovative research that will yield returns in the long-term? And conversely, is it possible to limit short-term trading, or at least to reduce its impact on the governance of companies?
Stewardship has become a central focus of regulators seeking to push markets to a long-term orientation. What do good stewardship and responsible investment look like in practice? Is it reasonable to expect institutional investors and corporate managers to serve as good stewards and act sustainability?
The way forward depends on how you prefer to read this bifurcation between the technologists and the sceptics. We don’t know which group is right: there are no future facts. But there are some observations that can help shape our perspectives on this.
The first is that these widely divergent views are a feature of this point in the technology cycle. The most the most excitable projections of the future of the car were seen at just this point on the oil and auto curve in the 1950s. The technology S-curve in Figure 1, based on the work of Carlota Perez, helps us to understand why. At this point, when the S-curve is at or approaching its second inflection point, people have been experiencing rapid technological change for the best part of two generations. The notion that “the only constant is change” has become a breathless platitude in the public discourse. So, the technologists’ perspective (point ’t’ in Figure 1) is a projection of this steep ramp. The sceptics note instead sign of falling returns and declining customer utility – and see a flattening of the line (point ’s). The gap is large, and one’s perspective on it is a matter of worldview, not evidence.
Source: Carlota Perez/ additional analysis by The Futures Company
Second, almost all business innovation and new business value is driven by the application of knowledge, and the way it is embedded in individuals, teams, and systems. The Futures Company has explored this in recent research with the Association of Finnish Work on the idea of ‘high value work.’ The important point here is that this is true of a whole range of knowledge, including knowledge of service and customers, and knowledge of culture and place, as well as technological knowledge. The most successful businesses use technology to complement and enhance this knowledge, not to replace it.
Third, the trend towards is a deep and powerful one. If Millennials express a desire for meaningful work, this is also true more broadly. We are on the cusp of a transition to a world where, as Hardin Tibbs (2011) has argued, half of the populations of Europe and the United States subscribe to post-modern values (drawing on Inglehart) of autonomy and diversity. The workplace will not escape this trend. One way in which this is expressed is in a transition from consumer or employee to citizen. Increasingly, anyone with any degree of choice in the labour market is choosing employees who recognise them as a whole person, not just as a unit of labour. The evidence suggests that the engagement that the employer gets in return (even, say, in retail) is a powerful driver of performance and profitability.
Fourth, the bargain that businesses struck in the 1980s and 1990s, as they enforced flexibility and “downsized” headcount, may turn out to be a Faustian pact. Shedding jobs and exerting tight control of labour markets increased short-run profits. But at the same time that same control squeezed out their sources of growth. And as both the OECD (Cingano, 2014) and the IMF (Ostry et al, 2014) have noted recently, wage inequality has been a further drag on economic growth. To regain growth, they are likely to have to increase wages and give back some control and power to their workforces.
My own best guess is that we are not headed for long-run technological unemployment. I have changed my mind about this over the past year as I have spent more time with the evidence.
The explanation that seems best to fit present state of work and labour markets is that it has been through a “perfect storm” of a globalised workforce, the deskilling of routine work (which was highly vulnerable to automation) and the shift of these workers into manual or service work, and aggressive deregulation of labour markets driven by a neoliberal political agenda.
The discourse around technological unemployment is not persuasive to me. The “abstract” jobs (using David Autor’s analysis above) will be complemented by technology, and so, in a different way, will be the manual jobs. Meanwhile, the projected gains from Artificial Intelligence and analytics are going to be harder to achieve than currently anticipated. As an example, big data gets less useful as the data sets get larger, and the driverless car, the poster child for the tech future, is a far tougher proposition than Google lets on. Meanwhile, these tech scenarios never seem to include the new jobs that will emerge as we understand better the potential of the technologies, other, sometimes, than as a panic about the possible speed of change.
But, and it is a big but, we’re only part of the way through the dislocation to work and to labour markets caused by this perfect storm. Things will not get better quickly.