Wednesday, June 05, 2013

We Need Human Interest as Well as Business Interest

I generally don’t like “reality TV.” However, I make an exception for “Undercover Boss,” a show that follows the experiences of a “boss” who goes undercover in his (they’re mostly men) company. What makes this show so gripping is the fact that the “boss,” without fail gets something of a wake-up call to the realities on the ground. When the “boss” summons his employees to HQ, he ends up doing “nice” things for them. The “boss” in the most recent episode that I watched came up with a wonderful sound bite that summed up his experiences of being “undercover” – “We need to human interest as well as business interest.”

This little nugget has touched me. I’m currently operating in a business environment where the pressure to deliver financial results is greater than ever. At the same time, there is an increasing amount of pressure to ensure that workers are properly treated.

This is particularly so in Singapore, the place where I’ve been based for the better part of the decade. Despite producing lots of “economic” growth, the Singapore government finds itself highly unpopular. Despite breaking its own taboos of not giving handouts (back in the ‘old’ days the Singapore government subsidized housing and healthcare but that was about it – these days, the government actually gives out cash on certain occasions), a government that has been used to total dominance has seen a steady erosion of its parliamentary seats in a two-year period. What’s going on?

Plenty has been said about the problems that modern Singapore faces. However, I think nobody has summed up the key problem as well as that particular boss in “Undercover Boss.” The powers-that-be, need to realize that ‘human’ interest are as important as ‘business’ interest. More importantly, human interest and business interest are not in conflict – if anything, they are good for each other.  

Let’s start with the obvious point – Singapore has prospered by looking after business interest. Our ‘honest’ and ‘business-friendly’ bureaucracy has encouraged foreign investors to create industries that have helped our population prosper. Say what you like about Singapore, but it’s a pretty darn good place to live. Infrastructure is comparable to anything in the ‘developed’ world and you can never underestimate the value of things like safety, especially for your children.

However, there’s a mood of discontent amongst the people these days. Go to any coffee shop in your average housing estate and you’ll find plenty of people grumbling about the way things are falling apart. Talk to enough people and you’ll get the impression that jobs have become a scarce commodity and for those with jobs will give you the impression that the word “job” is a polite term for slave labour.

The question arises on whether the government has become overtly business friendly to the extent that human interest become secondary. I would argue that the problem right now is that powers that be have become obsessed with the wrong type of business – namely spread sheet business.

Once again, I’m knocking spread sheets and figures. You need spreadsheets and such devices to control cost and to increase revenue. At the end of the day, a business has to make money. Having money enables a business to pay staff and contractors as well as shareholder. A business that cannot do any of these things is of no benefit to society.

However, money is just the byproduct of a business. At its very core, a business is an organization of people who are brought together for the common purpose of making money. Think of a restaurant as an example. The business is a restaurant is to bring someone who can cook and someone who can deal with customers together so that they can make money by selling a meal. The restaurant as a business is supposed to make money but it needs the activity of the cook and the waiter to do so. A restaurant needs to look after cook and waiter in order to look after its interest of making money.

If you look at things this way, the argument here is that the Singapore government has forgotten the basic premises of how things work. It has become obsessed with the “paper” of business. As such, the bureaucratic machine becomes obsessed with chasing “economic growth” figures without understanding how those figures translate something real. A government department can trumpet attracting so many dollars in foreign investment without understanding how it was created or what it means to the man on the ground.
What we need is not a neglect of business interest but a reminder that ‘human’ interest is an essential part of business interest. If you watch ‘Undercover Boss’ you will notice that the bosses are always surprised by how much employees are willing to give back to the company in terms of things like new ideas to improve process once they feel they are valued by the company.

Unfortunately these are things that can’t quantified in a spreadsheet and hence they get ignored during the board meeting. However, these are the things that are essential to helping the business thrive. Companies that look after “human interest” are the ones that have innovation and productivity and therefore prosperity – think of companies like 3M and Google as good examples. These companies are known for doing things like providing day care and allowing employees to devote 15 percent of their office time to a personal project.

Now apply this to the national economy. A country that makes its citizens feel like cogs to multinational companies can only so far. Countries that have a culture of making every citizen feel valuable tend to prosper in a more sustained manner. America, for all its current problems, has a culture where people feel valued and are rewarded in some way or another when they contribute.

Perhaps this might be a time for some of our leaders to go ‘undercover’ 

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