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Issue No. 120-d (April 2009) -- Mark Satin, Editor
good corporate guys
I. Corporate “heretics” hold the key!
Some activists are under the impression that corporations are inherently Bad, that the movement for “corporate social responsibility” originated with Baby Boomers (if not Gen-X’ers), and that that movement’s most effective champions have come from outside the corporate world.
According to Art Kleiner, a former editor at Whole Earth Review and now a leading business journalist, those impressions are not only wrong. They create a superficial and ultimately disempowering picture of corporate life (since you can’t change what you don’t understand).
In his book The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management (Jossey-Bass / Wiley, revised & expanded ed., 2008), Kleiner shows that passionate and even (occasionally) successful attempts to change the corporate workplace and corporate behavior have been on the upswing since the Second World War, and that the leaders of those attempts have largely been corporate insiders – executives and management consultants.
But they’re insiders with a difference. I am tempted to say they’re radical-middle insiders. Kleiner calls them “heretics,” and here’s how he defines them:
This may be the most enjoyable business book I’ve ever read. It is beautifully written (Kleiner’s writing philosophy hasn’t changed since his Whole Earth days – see HERE) and full of intimate knowledge of individuals and corporate trends. It is also occasionally hilarious, as when the author depicts a band of researchers at SRI International coming upon Gandhi collaborator Richard Gregg’s 1936 pamphlet “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity” and excitedly translating it into “terms they could sell to their [business] clients.”
And it’s an extraordinarily meaty book. Ponderous generalizations are scarce, and instead we get expertly-researched descriptions of specific attempts to change corporate cultures for the better, from the work of the incredibly courageous group-dynamics pioneers at the National Training Laboratories in the late 1940s, to the empowered-worker innovations at a remarkable, um, Gaines Dog Food plant in Kansas in the 1960s, to the exuberant General Electric “Work-Out” town-meeting type sessions of our own day.
Along the way, you’ll meet at least 11 “heretics” you may have come upon in this newsletter – Duane Elgin, Willis Harman, Paul Hawken, Hazel Henderson, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Amory Lovins, Michael Maccoby, Jay Ogilvy, Tom Peters, Peter Schwartz, and Peter Senge.
And Kleiner introduces you to many more folks who should have been here – people like Kurt Lewin (the first true student of group dynamics), Pierre Wack (first corporate champion of “scenarios”), Bob Hayes (first to argue that corporate management’s obsession with pure numbers would injure productivity), and Robert Kaplan (inventor of the “balanced scorecard”).
So it’s not surprising that Kleiner’s ultimate preferred vision is for the coming of two, three, many more “heretical” executives and consultants to every corporate entity:
“Corporations have become powerful because they work,” Kleiner concludes. “They work because of the power of large-scale business methods.” But in order for corporations to continue to work for us in the 21st century (and to continue to do well even for investors in the long term), corporations must continue “reinventing their purpose away from merely making money.”
To get them there, protest is not enough. “People are needed to say all this inside corporate walls. And fortunately those who take on that role may be more appreciated, and more listened to, than they have been in the past.”
II. Laws emphasizing worker “dignity” hold the key!
Maverick executives and consultants are all well and good, David Yamada might reply. But if you want real corporate change – especially change that benefits workers (and change that’s not subject to management fads) – then you need better laws, imposed by “outsiders.”
But just as traditional corporate management is wanting, so is the traditional labor movement. What is to be done?
In “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (available HERE since November 12, 2008, and soon to be published in the University of Richmond Law Review), Yamada – a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston, and head of the New Workplace Institute there – proposes changing the focus of employment law from workers as powerless automatons to workers as human beings in need of, above all, “dignity.”
If you’ve been reading this newsletter regularly, then you’ll have come upon Yamada before – as a leading voice in the anti-workplace-bullying movement (see HERE). You’ll also have come upon the “dignitarian” movement, in our review of Robert Fuller’s pioneering book Somebodies and Nobodies (see HERE). Yamada’s article translates Fuller’s broad-gauge philosophy into a practical political agenda for labor.
Yamada’s first task is to define dignity. He pays his respects to traditional definitions and to “new conceptualizations” coming from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But like Therapeutic Jurisprudence theorists (see our article HERE), whom Yamada explicitly identifies with, his heart is with the “new insights about dignity” coming from contemporary psychology.
From feminist psychology he asks, What kind of relationships lead to the positive psychological development of the people in them? From “occupational health psychology” he asks, What are the different occupational hazards – including psychosocial stressors in the work environment – that have been linked to ill-health? And from communitarian theory he takes the notion that workers who are paid fairly and otherwise treated with dignity “have a corresponding obligation to perform their jobs competently and ethically.”
Armed with such guiding ideas, Yamada introduces elements of what he calls a “dignitarian employment law agenda.” Among them:
III. Both / and
All Yamada’s suggestions sound feasible, except for one thing. As Yamada himself says in an out-of-the-way part of his article, “The law cannot force organizations to care about the health and well-being of their employees.” For Yamada’s suggestions to succeed in the daily give-and-take of corporate life, Art Kleiner’s executives and consultants will also need to be brought on board.
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