Philip Whiteley's Blog

May 30, 2013

Food banks, Big Data and a refusal to learn

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:25 am

Three articles this week, mostly depressing but with a glimmer of hope in one, offer a vivid portrayal of our technologically rich, economically unequal, debt-ridden, politically anachronistic and remarkably conservative and incurious society.

In The Independent, a report that use of food banks in the UK has shot up. The usual suspects are highlighted: delays in benefit system; curbs to benefit increases, pay freezes. Not mentioned in the report, for political reasons as the title is anti-Coalition, is the high level of personal debt in the UK, which soared under the last Labour government – and under the Conservative government before it – as a 2010 Bank of England Working Paper notes: up by more than 50% between 1987 and 2006.

Inventor Jaron Lanier, in a report that led to a lively discussion on the Radical Shift Linked-in group, noted how social media and other consumer firms are using Big Data to manipulate consumers. Simon Caulkin, spot on as usual, relates how corporations have been captured by the neo-liberal cult of only caring about shareholders, focusing on the short-term, and enriching a few.

There is one matter on which the neo-liberal zealots and The Independent agree: that extreme inequality helps the corporations. Over the longer term, especially, this is not consistently true. As discussed repeatedly on this blog and on Radical Shift, low pay does not maximize profits – this is a cynical myth supported by right-wing and left-wing economics. We have known since at least the 1930s and the Hawthorne experiments, that the way in which you treat workers is the single most important element in enhancing performance and the customer experience. The more ethical employers are also some of the most successful.

What is depressing this week is the extent to which there seems to be a refusal to learn: an insistence that low pay is inevitable or helps economic efficiency; that corporations cannot have a soul or a conscience; that only the state – itself massively indebted in each of the major economies – can help those on low incomes.

We have highly advanced electronic communications yet continue to neglect human communication. We think data is the hard stuff and relationships are the soft stuff. Corporations, keen to apply 21st Century Big Data, have yet to apply management research from the early 20th Century. Some progress. Half a century ago Martin Luther King complained that we had guided missiles but unguided people; we made progress in technology, but not in governance and leadership. Still the case.

I hate to be pessimistic, so now to the glimmer of hope. In Simon Caulkin’s piece, there was a report of a radically different vision of capitalism, one in which all of society stands to benefit. The head of McKinsey, no less, Dominic Barton said that capitalism had 10-30 years to reform itself. The business schools must follow suit. It’s challenging but not impossible. There are highly enlightened practices emerging from many supermarkets and consumer multinationals, especially on sustainability. You can read some examples in New Normal Radical Shift.

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