Friday, May 29, 2009

Conscious Capitalism: Still an Oxymoron?

Conscious Capitalism is a new buzz word for companies to incorporate into their mission statements; the link is to an Amazon list of books on that topic.

To me, this is a wonderful concept, except for the fact that most corporations, their mission statements aside, are built on the mantra competition and not cooperation.

While this is a trend that might be changing (at least according to Conscious Capitalist proponents) and it may also be reflected in the growth of social media, which is also based on cooperation, the sad reality of dealing with large institutions today is that any contact with them is invariably frustrating and stressful.

In the last day or so I have had three interactions with corporate or bureaucratic entities with which many of you will identify and relate:

1. A credit card company that decided to change my number because of a “merchant breach”, causing me massive inconvenience in terms of checking my online statement and re-entering the information into my direct payment accounts. They claim to have a commitment to customer service, but from my perspective true customer service would mean better security and no merchant breach, and a way of preserving my credit card number in the event of such an event.
2. A government agency that I need to call to change an appointment I cannot keep, but the phone message says they don’t answer any more calls because they’re overwhelmed.
3. A phone company web site that informs me I need a pin number to activate one of their services but whose customer service rep has a different story. I need to go through a maze of voice prompts to miraculously get a human, when I finally just say “agent!” out of exasperation.

I also detailed a horrific experience with another technology company that “values customer service” in a March blog about Vonage and how their pride in customer service is truly manifest.

What do all of these incidents, which are unfortunately still the rule rather the exception, tell us about the complexity of corporations and institutions?

First, to call any of their efforts “customer service” is to indulge in Orwellian double-speak.

These companies are not committed to providing service – they are committed to avoiding service to contain costs.

For example, if you have ever heard the message, “due to unusually high call volume, there may be a delay in answering your call…” or “your call is very important to us”, the translation is “we won’t commit money to more personnel because we don’t give a crap.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about spending a morning struggling with my computer. The main point was the consistent intervention by technology into a human endeavor—in that instance, writing—and how the problems were compounded by the software’s complexity at the cost of its functionality.

Why was it complex? Without new features users wouldn’t see a need to upgrade. The result of the upgrade? Complexity and frustration.

The Apple genius bar aside, there is no real way to get help on a computer issue from a human resource; if you’ve called a help line recently you surely experienced something like the three scenarios above, with the added annoyance of answering a gazillion questions before the person says “Can I help you?”

Then there are a gazillion more questions and no substantive answers, until you want to scream, like John McEnroe, “just answer the question! Can you please just answer my question (jerk)!”

So to follow up on the main issue raised by the conscious capitalists – what is the meaning of all this? (The presumed trend after all is that conscious corporations will focus on meaning rather than – profits)

Well one meaning may be that if cooperation at the expense of counting beans is actually practiced, lots of shareholders won’t be happy.

But perhaps there will be a new generation of conscious shareholders.

For now, however, the meaning is that any attempt to actually communicate with a large institution is at best stressful and at worst completely futile.

This may be a Zen lesson on a global scale in accepting what is as opposed to what should be, but if corporations don’t evolve to a conscious state soon, the humans on the planet will go insane (if they haven’t already).

Eckhart Tolle talks about this in his book, “A New Earth”, in which he calls corporations “giant egoic entities” committed only to profit. The problem of course that corporations generally don’t have the potential for evolution in that they do not have a conscious observer or sense of awareness (at least not yet).

How would a corporation meditate? Perhaps if all of its employees did so together this would lead to a shift; there is a video on YouTube of Jon Kabat-Zinn teaching a group of Google employees meditation and mindfulness. (Kabat-Zinn has appeared on Bill Moyers and many other programs as an expert in mind-body connection).

It’s been a while since I suggested the possibility that corporations are a new dominant life form, but it must be obvious to even the least conscious corporate entity that without humans to clean up the washrooms at night, they won’t last very long.

So why is it taking so long for companies to truly embrace what the experts are trying to teach them – that cooperation is a better long term strategy than bean counting competition?

So, why is customer service so nonexistent? Why is there still such a disconnect between large corporations’ mission statements and their actual performance?

My guess is that it ultimately comes down to us, the humans, and until we evolve, the corporations we build and work in will continue to be a reflection of our human nature, which at this point is still competitive and largely unconscious.

Maybe social media and a sense of cooperation can take root and sprout before it’s too late.

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