Monday, July 23, 2012

The Philosopher CEO

In my group at work, we have been accused of having a group of philosophers and a group of doers. This is typically mentioned with some serious disgust. As if having a group of people thinking about how the business is run is a bad thing. I think part of it stems from the idea that this means that they aren't doing anything productive or value added for the company. The perception is incorrect of course. The "philosophers" are actually a process improvement methodology team that provides course development, course training, mentoring for Lean Six Sigma certification, continual guidance for projects in flight and manages projects themselves. There are only two of them. That's a tall order to be honest.

But the idea of a philosophy group really got me thinking. Would it be a bad thing to have a group that looks at the ethical, moral or sustainable behavior of the company? I lump sustainability in with the morality and ethical question, because in a lot of ways sustainability is not looking to be a social issue and is another way of looking at the ethics of recycling and energy usage. I've talked about morality and MBA's specifically in my last post. Singling out the MBA crowd might not have been the fair as there is no reason why engineers couldn't behave in unethical ways, there's no requirement for engineers to take ethics courses.

Why does this matter? Well, we've seen a huge number of seemingly unethical choices coming out of companies. In some cases they may have been selected in a harmless way. For example the new MacBook Pros have a glued on battery, the choice may have been made to reduce the amount of time it takes to secure the battery. Putting a fast acting glue on the battery may have accomplished this, while screwing in the battery would take more time. This selection could have been made without the consideration of the repairability or replacability for components within the laptop. However, since this is Apple I'm talking about here, I find this unlikely. The next question would be, was this choice unethical? From a sustainability perspective it could be construed in that manner, which iFixit does do just that. The computer also lost its environmental certification by using the glue and some of the other design characteristics. This design also continues with Apple's decisions to make it more difficult to upgrade or do anything with their product once you've bought. This increases the number of times you have to purchase their products and exasperates the throwaway culture of many other products.

Consumers are also starting to become more aware of the unethical behavior of companies. We've seen this with the recent banking scandals, we've seen this with the investigation into Foxconn and we're likely to see it moving forward in other sectors. We're starting to hear about more unethical behavior in the ag industries, in regard to their treatment of animals or in the case of Monsanto basically suing farmers when seeds of their crops land in their field. The increase in consumer awareness through the increased usage of social media and other social networking tools is going to significantly increase both information and disinformation about these topics.

It is likely that there will be an increase in the number of watch dog organizations in existence and more reliance on government agencies, like the Consumer Protection agency in the US now. The banks have argued for a long time that these regulations are unnecessary as they can regulate themselves. We do know that profit pressures can prevent ethical behavior and encourage unethical behavior. Perhaps it's time that every organization has an Internal Affairs organization similar to what the police have. I do not believe that these organizations are perfect and can become corrupt (or have the appearance of being corrupt), but I think that they can be useful.

Penn State is going to have to set up an organization like this. I think for the University this was going to be required for them to even have a chance at ever regaining their credibility. The records for that group need to be wide open for everyone to view. I think this type of office needs to be in any publicly traded company. It will ensure greater transparency, allow watch dog groups and consumers to choose the actual ethical companies and these groups would be auditable. This could be a certification process similar to ISO9001 (a manufacturing document control quality system), where the members of the team are given ethics training in a wide range of topics including morality and then are expected to train the employees of the company, CEO included.

By creating organizations such as this, companies can greatly clarify how their behavior is ethical and moral. Once several large companies create agencies like this other companies will be shamed into doing it as well. Thus increasing the number of Philosopher CEOs out there.

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