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The concept of change has interested and intrigued me for many years.  Not least because the one thing that most people in the world can agree on today is that we need change.

Organisation culture change is a subject that has fascinated me for the better part of two decades. The seeds of my interest were sewn while leading a program of technical work at the heart of Royal Dutch Shell.  My team was engaged in architecting, designing, developing and managing a digital communications platform for the company’s global organisation transformation program – targeting over 120,000 Shell employees around the world.  This was organisation change on a grand scale!  At the time I had no idea this experience would have such a profound effect on my professional career, entrepreneurial spirit and subsequent life choices.

The Shell Transformation Program¹ is well document. It was conceived in an era when the company was dealing with oil prices trending down from $20 towards $11 a barrel, if not less, while generating a lot of negative publicity surrounding it’s activities in Nigeria as well as a textbook corporate relations blunder that exposed just how out of touch it was with its public.  Shell had stumbled head-long into an intense storm of media interest that fuelled an enormous public outcry over the company’s plan to dispose of the Brent Spar oil rig – by towing it out to sea and sinking it to the bottom of the deep Atlantic Ocean.

When Greenpeace activists occupied the Brent Spar and journalists lined up to question the integrity of Shell’s plan, its response displayed the classic symptoms of an organisation that was, culturally speaking, so deeply invested in the status-quo of a bygone era that key decision-makers within the organisation dug their heels in to defend it.  They either hadn’t noticed or had chosen not to notice that the world was no longer the same place.  Call it blindness or selective science but either way, Shell was not only living in the past but fighting for all of us to remain there – just as so many actors in the energy supply industries are continuing to do today.

In essence, Shell was culturally disinterested in the needs, interests and concerns of its stakeholders and this simple fact became increasingly obvious as the company argued that there was nothing wrong with it’s disposal plan for the Brent Spar, because this was the way the company had always disposed of retired oil rigs…  insisting that there was no meaningful environmental impact associated with this decision. For almost 6 months, Shell dug in – standing by their scientific analysis of the environmental impact and this is what ultimately sealed Shell’s fate in the court of public opinion.  They argued and argued their case for months – until public anger boiled over.  The value of Shell’s shares tumbled as protests and boycotts against the Shell brand sprung up around Europe, with highlights including the firebombing of a fuel station in Germany.

Greenpeace played a key role in the campaign that stopped Shell from dumping the Brent Spar in the Atlantic (Photo courtesy: Greenpeace)

Scuppering the Brent Spar was never the most cost-effective way to dispose of it, but as far as Shell was concerned, it was the most expedient.  This is only one example of how the conception and employment of expedient measures is one of the key areas where institutionalised processes have a tendency to drive cultures that in turn are prone to overstepping humanitarian boundaries.

In the Brent Spar case, the measures that may have, at some point in history been accepted due simply to a lack of human understanding at that time had been overtaken by decades of news surrounding relevant scientific exploration, discovery, study and analysis. There was new data!

Thanks largely to a campaign by Greenpeace this toxic pile of steel, concrete and various nasty chemicals was eventually towed to a Scandinavian marine scrapyard where it was dismantled and recycled.  This not only saved a hit on the environment, but actually netted Shell a small windfall.  Arguing its case under the intense spotlight of media scrutiny exposed this flaw in Shell’s culture.

The public outing of such a glaring cultural deficit inside one of the world’s most recognisable and valuable brands was so thorough, and complete that senior executives had no choice but to confront the realisation that Shell had made an enormous error of judgement and that fundamental change was needed.  Shell’s very own dossier on the Brent Spar case sums this up: “We recognised that we needed to change our approach – not just to offshore decommissioning in the UK, but to how we conduct our operations everywhere.” Enter, the shell transformation program.

The stated objective of the transformation program was to improve Shell’s financial performance by driving personal accountability, openness and honesty. In short, integrity. Evidently, these and other scandals involving the company had taken their toll.  What was it, exactly, that needed to change?  Behaviour.  The program aimed to stamp out the kind of institutionalised behaviours that all of these scandals led back to – not least, the environmental catastrophe in the Niger Delta which continues to haunt Shell to this day.  Not only were these behaviours gnawing at Shell’s reputation, but also it’s earnings.

As a systems analyst leading a number of project teams, I was immersed in the most exciting challenge of my career: co-coordinating systems development initiatives designed to engage every employee with relevant information as well as various tools and pathways.  So, naturally I was spending a lot of time thinking about change and how technology could be used to systematically motivate a global organisation to adopt new ways of doing things. I was also in very good company because my cues and a fair amount of wisdom came to me, either directly or indirectly, from then Chairman Sir Mark Moody-Stuart – who, more recently in 2015, made a startling comment about climate change.

It wasn’t long afterwards, that Shell released the first corporate social responsibility report, which got me thinking even more about the features that distinguish genuinely good corporate citizens from all others. The answer to that question has not changed: everything boils down to the behaviour of individuals. Everything.  Companies do not care about anything and they do not make bad choices.  It is always people who do these things.  When behaviours that are damaging to the reputation of a brand achieve wider, cultural acceptance within the organisation, then the business is clearly in big trouble and the reality is that few senior executives are even aware of the problem, until a costly crisis has already unfolded.

Fast forward and today things really haven’t changed much.  Joe Public is still not enamoured with the manner in which, for example, regulators on both sides of the Atlantic have been slapping financial institutions on numerous wrists with their own digital cash, when they should be exercising their power to not only fine these organisations, but also ensure that all guilty executives are effectively prosecuted and locked up, barred from the financial services industry and forced into walking in the shoes of their victims.  In the most severe cases regulators should be able to sack entire boards, force bankruptcies, institutional break-ups and liquidations.  There is no escape from the fact that organisations and individuals choosing to retain the values of the Gordon Gecko era are analogous to a plague of rats.

That may seem like pretty strong language to some people but if you think I have it in for the banks, you’re wrong.  My countless personal experiences as a disappointed, if not angry consumer, parent and citizen of the world led me to the realisation that it is fundamentally, a lack of humanity that produces these outcomes.  This led me to an important discovery, which is the irrefutable correlation between the quality, consistency and satisfaction ratings of products and services produced by, for argument’s sake, “good organisations”, and those produced by “bad organisations” and the environmental, economic and social outcomes associated with their activities.

In other words good brands are imbued with humanity and there is nothing contrived or unnatural about their commitment to doing the right thing, because the many innovative ways they imagine, structure, organise and process their work do not inhibit perfectly natural humanitarian responses to commercial challenges. Bad brands on the other hand, are simply unwilling and therefore unable to express genuine humanity and this shows up as poor product and service quality and cultural complacency.  As long as they can keep selling more and more of the same if not similar stuff that costs the very least to produce then everything will be okay, at least for them.  However, one of the inescapable consequences of trading goods and or services is that each and every transaction produces strong anecdotal and empirical evidence of the real underlying character and integrity of the organisation and its culture.

So, no, it’s not just the banks, but clean up the financial system and you clean up banks.  Clean up the banks and you clean up business.  Clean up business and you clean up the world.  No, I have it in for business as usual. That is, organisations of any nature or size, with only one item on their agenda.  That is, to make as much money as possible without a care in the world for the environment, the quality of life in their supply chains or indeed the well-being and satisfaction of their employees, their customers and shareholders for that matter.  Typically, management in a bad organisation is fixated with the financial demands of owners and shareholders, but only as a means to enriching themselves and the rest of the world can go to hell for all they care.

Imagine discovering rats have taken refuge in your home, raiding your food store and presenting health risks to you and your family. At first, they do it quietly while you’re sleeping but while your unsuccessful attempts to eradicate them using various do-it-yourself methods consistently fail, their numbers grow. They become more brazen from your seeming inability to get rid of them. This is precisely what is happening in our world today and the threats to the well-being of you and your family for generations, are real, persistent and in many cases corporate. It’s time to start making smarter choices that are better on every level.

For decades, we have been witnessing a constant ebb and flow of large organisations taking refuge in their particular status-quo, which is precisely how and where these fat rats roam free.  They take anyone and everyone else for granted and nibble at our personal and common resources, trash the environment, treat people as throw away objects and they are presiding over a generational threat to public well-being, wealth and security that has real consequences for future generations.  At some point, perhaps they will either self-destruct, or adapt to the new world, but we cannot rely on that unless more people are empowered with the ability to make better choices, which fundamentally means being more thoughtful about what, who and where you’re choosing to spend or invest your money!

In 2003 I cashed in my dot.com era chips and dedicated myself to figuring out how data can be used to identify and qualify so-called ethical brands in order to ensure that the eb Identity™ represents the most reliable symbol of organisational integrity.  Today, the not-for-profit Ethical Brand Foundation owns all of the intellectual property associated with the means to authenticate and license genuine ethical brands to display the eb™ symbol.  We have a proven model for obtaining and analysing all of the data needed to assess the character of any organisation, or brand. This research enables us to not only join dots, but draw scientifically valid conclusions about the social, economic and environmental integrity of any organisation – with or without its cooperation.

References:

¹Kaptein, Muel, and Johan Ferdinand Dietrich Bernardus Wempe. “Invitation to Dialogue.” The Balanced Company: A Theory of Corporate Integrity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. N. pag. Print.

2017 marks the start of an exciting new chapter in the history of the Ethical Brand project. If you have any interest in the many ways we are working to make real change really happen then please keep in touch by subscribing to this blog. Ensure that you don’t miss out on any of the news and service announcements we will be making throughout the year.  This includes reports on the ground-breaking work we are doing in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) with an Australian project partner and the first release of eb Global Ratings™, as well as our Membership service. If you’d also like to receive insights, anecdotes and reports drawn from our own research as well as a diverse range of rated news sources, and our international community of followers then subscribe to the eb Daily™. This is our lightly curated, quick-read news service for anyone with a general interest in the world of commercial ethics. It’s free!