City City Bang Bang, Columns

The social face of business?

“In an emergency, anywhere in India, someone from our side will be with you within an hour”. This was how two Indian entrepreneurs, involved with the textile industry were trying to communicate the scale of their business in a recent conversation. They did not talk about their sales, or the number of outlets they serviced nor did they use statistics about the number of people who bought their product or the millions of meters of fabric that they sold. They chose to bring alive the scale of their network by focusing on a possible human need, one that would strike a resonant chord with almost anyone, even those who have no interest in textiles or in business itself. Having someone to depend on in a crisis anywhere in the country is a thought that is wonderfully comforting. To use such a human need as a measure of business success was an unself-conscious action from their side, but remarkable all the same, for it showed what their mental model of business was.

In the view of traditional Indian business, the market (bazaar) is not an impersonal device that merely helps make money but a living organism; one that serves a very real human function. The market lives not as an alcove of commercial interest, but at the center of a community’s social life and serves purposes far in excess of making money. Scholar and author Rajni Bakshi describes this model of the bazaar as ‘a more socially-embedded market culture- based on a broader, more well- rounded view of human nature.’

Personal life and work are part of an organic whole, without a great need felt to draw sharp boundaries. The family is involved in the business seamlessly, and roles shift fluidly according to need. Money is handled with great care, but the business often does not know exactly how much surplus it generates. One’s word is a cherished commodity and personal reputation is everything. Oral contracts are inviolable, and some flexibility is shown in accommodating each other’s needs, for relationships and trust count more than anything else. This is what makes it possible for traditional structures like the commodity markets to function with very low levels of default.

In this model, disputes are dealt with using a communitarian notion of justice, rather than a legal one. The use of informal mechanisms and unconventional instruments abound. One might pay a penalty, forgo opportunities, perform an act of penance, endure shaming and social boycotts- the range of punitive and corrective actions is a large and inventive one. The parameters of the social, rather than legal hold sway. The overall purpose is further the cause of the community, rather than focus narrowly on individual gain.

The modern market has, in contrast, been built an impersonal vision of reciprocity, one which converts the idea of long term interdependence into a series of short-term encounters, clinical in nature and transactional in spirit. The currency of money, the act of putting a price on everything, makes the market a mechanistic apparatus, one which gives us predictable relationships between input and output and allows for scale and replication. Documentation becomes key as does the separation of the personal from the professional.

At the heart of this mental model of markets, lies the valorization of the professional, who is seen as a commercial hit-man, using his skills to deliver secular outcomes for a business- growth, profits, market share. To the professional, the world of relationships and informal mechanisms is an irritant, for it renders the achievement of commercial goals far too context-sensitive, rather than uniform and predictable. The allegiance is to the task given, and any acknowledgement of the larger context is carefully filtered out. Ethics need to be consciously articulated, for a natural sense of the moral is difficult to grasp in such an impersonal construct. In some sense then, the idea of the professional is constructed in the opposition to that of the social. The corporation as a structure further distances business from society by atomising ownership thereby detaching its purpose from any identifiable human motivation. Shorn of any larger responsibility and detached from any social ecology, it is able to pursue a single goal and serve the largely invisible shareholder. This extractive view of business exacts costs from all the contexts that it is embedded in including the natural environment and society.

This is beginning to change. Armed with a voice on social media, consumers are pushing business to integrate more with social concerns, and it is responding in its own way. We see more corporations waking up to their social role and professing a deep interest in society. Every corporation and brand seems to be looking for a larger purpose and is chasing a cause of some kind. Advertising is full of pious declarations of social action- suddenly, business seems to be as focused on saving the world as it is on boosting its bottom line, and perhaps the two are not entirely unrelated.

However, the problem lies not with intention alone, but with the mental model of business itself. Without reconciling the personal with the commercial, attempts by business to don a more human face seem contrived, nothing more than a new advertising peg. Business still operates in a realm of its own, with only a token nod to the human needs of its stakeholders. The fact that in the USA, the crucible of market capitalism, there is no paid leave that is guaranteed for maternity (federal law mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave) is a pointer to how business cannot accommodate a need as fundamental as childbirth.

This is not to argue for a wholesale embrace of the traditional way of doing business, for it is not equipped to handle the complex needs of today’s business context but to acknowledge that there is much to learn from it. We need to be reminded that business has always been a human network that exists for a collective human purpose.

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