Good work and a process of renewal

Is it time to focus on business's capacity to generate transformational change?

My friend and colleague at Jericho Chambers, Neal Lawson, having inspired the Progressive Alliance at the 2017 General Election, isn’t giving up on politics but is turning his attention to business’s capacity for transformative change. Neal’s point is that politics is not the only agency for change — corporations, not just politicians, must fill the vacuum of leadership. This will not, however, see corporations continuing with business-as-usual. Rather, they must find a new accommodation within the new world (dis)order, properly understanding its anxieties and anger and the power of a networked citizenry for whom free market capitalism no longer works. It’s worth noting that the big news of the week wasn’t Theresa May reaching out to Jeremy Corbyn, but Volvo sounding the death knell of the combustion engine — and hopefully foreshadowing in some big way the end of the downwards spiral towards a combustible planet.

While Neal has managed to escape the tribalism of his (political) roots, the majority of others (the famed Westminster ‘bubble’) have not. For all the talk of a ‘newer, kinder, gentler politics,’ we have quickly returned to the Punch & Judy yah-boo of the old establishment, worsened by happy flirtations with post-truth fakery and post-peak BS. And yes, I agree that now is the time for business to step up and lead — though a radically different settlement is required. I’ve always said that the crisis of trust is in fact a crisis of leadership.

No quick fixes

As a panellist at a recent Financial Times/ IE Corporate Learning Alliance event, I received applause for welcoming into the debate Antonio Gramsci (the long-dead Italian communist political philosopher) and the concept of the interregnum — the period in which the old is not yet dead, and the new has still to be born. During such times, Gramsci wrote, ‘morbid symptoms will persist’. This is exactly where we are now — Gramsci’s prescience on the likes of Brexit and Trump is almost eerie. Meanwhile, commentator Gideon Rachman has written about Brexit and the very real prospect of national humiliation, asking whether this is in fact good for the political soul. The answer is probably not.

Humiliated or not, the path that leads us away from the old and into the new is more important than attempts to ‘insta-fix’ the problems themselves. In other words, we need to trust the process before we obsess about the policy. Sadly, in a smartphone-driven, instant-gratification society that seeks answers-on-demand, for everything from minicabs to political resignations, few have the patience to place their trust in process and still less to look beyond the short-term of rolling news headlines, profit statements or political quick-wins. For the public health of us all, we have to wean ourselves away from this addiction to fast fixes that are rarely fixes at all.

This is why I’ve been arguing for a new social compact between government, business, citizens and society — one that gives equal voice and participation to all. What’s more, we need to celebrate long-termism and societal and planetary wellbeing as our lodestars — escaping from the weaponised, pejorative use of the common good and returning to its Athenian roots that speak to fairness, wisdom, tolerance and justice. Of course, this mission will be messy and at times chaotic — concepts much derided by business school convention, yet equally recognised as genuine and not part of the false orthodoxy that had led the world to what feels like a bleak breaking-point.

What is good work?

The freshly published Taylor Review of modern working practices, with its seven-point plan, focuses on policy recommendations for ‘good work’. There is much to commend about its findings, many of which chime with what has surfaced from this Future of Work is Human community. The report is symbolic and an important indicator of change in this interregnum, but it is telling that several vested interest groups, rather than applauding the direction of travel and urging more, have instead adopted ‘positions’ that speak to tribal self-interest, rather than common good. What would Radio 4’s Today programme do without them?

What Taylor has kickstarted is a vital national conversation. This should not be about whether we give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the likes of Deliveroo and Uber, but rather what is the purpose and meaning of good work, and where does it fit within a society that we want to see? There is a real danger of missing the bigger questions of the purpose of work, creativity, identity and relationships and diving straight into the policy nitty-gritty on good work — the default position of politicians and their advisors. Only bigger thinking and better process will lead to better policy and a new consensus.

Responsible tax

The review’s findings touch on tax — another critical dialogue in our current context. Courageously supported by KPMG, the Responsible Tax project, piloted in the UK in 2015/16 and now running globally, is as much an exercise in co-production and responsible listening, allowing all sides in the debate to escape their polarising echo chambers.

With responsible tax — as it should be with good work — better process is leading to better, more informed policy outcomes. Common good is again central to the initiative, not least in directly addressing issues of tax evasion and tax avoidance. Evasion is of course illegal and legislation must reflect this, with no room for doubt. A more difficult area is what constitutes avoidance and how to stem it. KPMG’s Global Head of Tax Jane McCormick has long held that ‘tax is a legal duty but does have a moral dimension’. Responsible tax thinking asks that business is conducted openly, fairly, transparently — and for the common good. Responsible tax thinkers therefore do not aggressively avoid, given their adherence to the principles and behaviours that recognise the moral dimension of tax and the need for fairness.

Towards common good

An economic and democratic renewal is needed. Just as the crisis of trust has masked a real crisis of national and global leadership, short-termism and flawed quick-fix policies have failed us. Better processes and imaginative leaps are needed to pivot from the old to the new. It’s important to recognise the morbid symptoms of the interregnum but hold on to the belief that they can and will be left behind as we move more confidently into the new and flatter terrain of the 21st century.

New coalitions and alliances will be required and all of us will need to play an active part as agents for change. These coalitions cannot emerge, however, without more thoughtful conversations and an escape from tired dogma. The journey has begun but we are not there yet. No-one, including Antonio Gramsci, said this would be easy. Matthew Taylor, Theresa May and indeed others should take note.

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