Peter Senge Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2008, ISBN 9781857883732
IN TERMS OF the snapshot The Necessary Revolution provides of corporate best practice in the early 21st century, Peter Senge and his researchers provide us with a rich and fascinating feast. In terms of indicating how things will develop from herein on, they offer us very thin pickings indeed.
That may sound contradictory. After all, why shouldn’t today’s best practice become tomorrow’s common practice across the entire global economy? Why won’t the majority of multinationals (The Necessary Revolution is focused very heavily on large multinationals) promptly follow the example of DuPont, GE, Xerox, Nike, Coca-Cola and BMW – these being the companies from which the authors derive most of their raw material? The answer to those questions lies in the fact that this book’s title is quite seriously misleading: there is no revolution to be detected in these pages, and what we are really given access to is a “necessary and very smart evolution” of companies for whom business-as-usual is becoming less and less viable.
The great thing is the very privileged access that we get. The raw material is presented and interpreted with great authority and fluency. Use of personal testimony brings things to life in a compelling way. The cumulative experience of the authors gained through the Society for Organizational Learning provides insights and practical guidance that it would be difficult to source anywhere else. For sustainability practitioners, both within the corporate world and beyond it, The Necessary Revolution will therefore come to be seen as an extraordinarily valuable resource.
But its value will, I fear, be short-lived. By defining their boundary conditions so narrowly, the authors sometimes seem to be operating within a self-contained and rather unworldly bubble. Though there are fleeting references to the need for wholesale institutional reform, no attempt is made to demonstrate what that might look like. One short chapter is devoted to The Future of the Corporation, but the reforms it proposes are relatively superficial and short-term. What’s more, those changes would be all but painless for today’s multinationals – and anything that doesn’t entail profound, even traumatic pain for today’s preferred model of capital concentrated in the hands of a tiny and massively over-rewarded elite isn’t likely to make much of an impact in a world that is literally falling to pieces in front of our very eyes.
The dominant assumption underpinning The Necessary Revolution is that, with the right kind of corporate leadership and the right kind of regulatory interventions, today’s model of progress (based on exponential economic growth and year-on-year increases in personal consumption, for 6.5 billion people today and 9 billion people by 2050) is still viable. Such a hypothesis was always somewhat incredible; now it’s pure fantasy.
In that respect, The Necessary Revolution falls foul of its own analysis that a critical aspect of today’s problem is our persistent “focus on parts, not on wholes”. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the Society for Organizational Learning over the years has been its uncompromisingly holistic orientation. But the bigger systems within which business operates are afforded scant attention in this text. Societal crises are referred to, but never properly addressed; worsening inequity lurks in the margins, as an unwelcome ghost at the feast, but despite the brave words from some of the CEOs featured, there is very little in this book that will make much of a difference to the lives of the world’s poorest people.
What’s more, there’s very little consideration of the public policy dimensions of today’s necessary revolution. There is an assumption that the pace of change can be accelerated, and will then be sufficient, but no evidence of the kind of political will required to enforce such an acceleration is offered. This leads to a pattern of over-claiming, as in “the financial industries’ U-turn” being used to describe the somewhat limited actions of some of the more enlightened players in the financial services sector – even as the process of capital allocation in today’s global markets carries on in the same life-threateningly unsustainable way.
The truth of it is that the vast majority of companies today (and their shareholders, including – directly or indirectly – most of us) still prosper by systematically undermining the life-support systems on which we depend, and by further accumulating wealth in the hands of the already obscenely wealthy. However well-behaved and socially responsible they may be, companies cannot be expected to sort out such vast structural faults if left to their own devices. Only governments can do that, and a book that simply skims over that realpolitik is necessarily going to fall short of any revolutionary aspirations.
I know that the authors’ response to this somewhat mixed review will be to see it as typical of someone who has not been able to “give up their negative visions”. Interestingly, there is a revealing section in the book addressing the complex balancing act between hope inspired by changing corporate behaviour and despair in the face of incontrovertible empirical reality. But as someone in the very same place as the authors of this book (working through Forum for the Future with some of the very same companies), I just don’t feel that The Necessary Revolution has got that balance right.