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2020 has been truly historic, many say it is a year unlike any other. For the religious, 31st December’s vigil usually is a sign of hope. The new year’s bell must have hit differently for businesses that had strategic agenda and new targets, higher heights to achieve. Everybody seemed poised for ‘double-double’, it did not quite appear to us it may turn out to be portions of double zero, double zero but indeed, it was literally 2020.
The reality of the year unfolded with the narrative of a flu from China which has become definitive of the year. A global pandemic, COVID-19, quickly turned the ivory towers of the global financial order quivering like a sandcastle- a financial recession only comparable to the depression before the creation of this Bretton Woods order. As though a recession and a global pandemic was not enough to test our grit, the very fabric of society, the political and social structure, has seen unprecedented strain in various social unrests with police brutality leading as the cause for ‘aluta’.
If any year will however teach us about resilience and adaptability, it certainly must be this year. If there was ever an opportunity to create a better world, this year presents such an opportunity. This article will therefore not discuss the ‘new normal’ as is mostly touted but will seek to guide towards a ‘better normal’. A future which does not mean we are returning to the way life was before the first sun rays shined through the breaking dawn of this year but this article invites us to reimagine a world which works for everybody, reshaping the world in truly dramatic ways not only for the 3% but for the majority of the people.
Let us, therefore, embrace the call of action to recreate a new and better world, let us rethink some of the business ethos that have been our roadmap for many generations:
- Empathy or Inflexibility? Business naturally gives a sense of busyness, a disposition which gives an inclination towards caution and anxiety, creating climates of rigidity and unbending bureaucracy. How we often like to say, it is business, not personal or it is not about you but its business. It appears we pull the ‘it is business card’ to give ourselves cause to be inhuman. Let’s assume this high-mindedness of tough business is right without a debate, the question will remain, what will businesses do with the new realities as we find ourselves now? According to the International Labour Organization’s nowcasting model, “global working hours declined in the first quarter of 2020 by an estimated 4.5 percent (equivalent to approximately 130 million full-time jobs, assuming a 48-hour working week), compared to the pre-crisis situation. The projection for the second quarter was expected to be 10.5% lower than in the last pre-crisis quarter. This is equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs.” The unemployment figures sure are getting worse with the levels and uncertainty increasing with the second wave of Covid-19. The IMF projects a global GDP growth for 2020 to be -4.4%, a global contraction. As of April 2020, WTO economists estimated that world trade would fall between 13% and 32% in 2020. These are the harsh, almost apocalyptic realities. Flexibility and empathy have always been good business, but today is not about opinions, today is about asking the hard question of how businesses will deal with these realities. How do we envision rebuilding without empathy? Today is about asking if it is possible to solve the business needs of customers at this time without flexibility. I invite readers to reimagine a world where we can get to the desired business outcomes without dehumanizing our employees or disregarding their individualities. Today is an invitation to a better world where business climates are not hostile but carefully engineered to contain empathy and flexibility as necessary conditions for success. I humbly suggest it is only in the spirit of good neighbourliness that companies can truly understand customer needs in this 2020 business context and it is the companies who embrace empathy and flexibility who can appreciate the impacts and extent of the uncertainties on their stakeholders in order to productively engage them in rebuilding new and better ways of serving them.
- Competitiveness or collaboration? Competition is almost always viewed as a good thing for the overall market except that, the assumption for such a conclusion has always been, Ceteris Paribus. How we often say, a horse never runs as fast as when it has other horses to catch up and outpace, yet again we are mindless of quicksand when we think of the race. The pandemic and its associated economic crisis may not exactly be black swan events but its effects such as working from home are completely unknown to modern business, at least since Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management theory of business. On 8th September, 2020 the news of a group of nine vaccine developers announcing a collaborative working framework was called a ‘historic pledge’. It was a pledge to uphold scientific and ethical standards in the search for coronavirus vaccine. Ordinarily, the question should be why must a collaborative pact among business people make international news? Well, the truth is it did because it was truly historic. The Akans in Ghana like to say, ‘no single hand can cover the eyes of God’, to wits, it takes many hands to cover the eyes of the gods. If any context will be as fierce as the keen eyes of the gods, it is coronavirus and its consequent effects and I have no doubt it will take the collaborative works of ecosystems to solve the problems of today and tomorrow. The business climate must therefore be opened to experiential learning with others who seek to solve similar problems, business must be inclined to working with others as the challenges we are faced with are bigger than a single enterprise’s profiteering agenda.
- Inclusive culture or hierarchy of privilege? As a person with deep interests in organizational development, I naturally turn to be big on organizational culture and behaviour. Chapter one of my first book, ‘Fate of System Thinking’, spent considerable amount of time discussing culture, as I humbly view it as the way by which decisions are put on autopilot. Culture is a bundle of manifestations of human consciousness. Within an organization, however, the individual consciousness develops into something of a collective mindware, the group’s summed up awareness that primes even the most critical for groupthink. A corporate culture however exists as a subset of a larger societal culture, with variations found specifically in that individual or organization, the bigger point being made is that; culture is endemic. So let us consider the question of what is our culture as Ghanaians or Africans if we intend to be expansive. Whatever your answer to the descriptive of the larger societal culture, we must understand culture is a currency, the social capital, by which we may trade a healthy interaction for quality decision. If one intends to be overly academic in the analysis of culture, one may use tool like the Hofstede Cultural Dimensions or the Handy Cultural Categorizations but without laboring in such academia, readers must understand, we either have a culture of the ‘big boys club’ call them the 3% who are deemed superior and supreme, worthy of all worship and full of understanding or a culture which values the individual perspectives of the 97% and works at integrating their understanding and experiences in creating a better working environment. Businesses have a choice between lords at the top or a mindset of servants everywhere, a choice that assumes the ‘boss’ has all the answers and thus everyone shuts up or that, every meaningful perspective and question is relevant to understanding the problem and creating solutions. It should appear obvious by now, that this generation’s cultural inclination is not very sublime in condoning ‘oga at the top’, ENDSARS, is perhaps a cautionary tale for an emerging new African culture and businesses must seek to build an inclusive culture that makes people feel seen and heard but more importantly businesses must build cultures that ensures that, the most effective ways of solving problems exits not by privilege but by harnessing all necessary perspectives.
This year has forced us to open our eyes, the narrative had always been about wealth but for once we have paused to be overly concerned about health, so as a concluding thought, I say let us build wealth by all means but let us build it healthily and sustainably. Let us choose life as a ‘better normal’, building stronger communities and effective support systems in the spirit of unity, cooperation, and one-mindedness by which even the gods could not stop the tower of Babel except to cause disunity. If there was ever a time for business leaders and organisations to build trust, it is now, but we shall leave the subject of trust for another day, but until then let us not forget even the most resilient societies do not survive broken trust, 2020 has given us everything that possibly can undermine our fragile human construct of trust but I pray we choose to strengthen our social contracts with our employees, customers, regulators as that is the only way we find our way out of this global catastrophe. Let us choose to feel the rain, even to enjoy it; not only to be beaten by it, drenched and unproductively wet.
My name is Yaw Sompa, I believe in our collective strength to overcome whatever challenges we may face. I am an author of two books, an enterprise risk professional and a lawyer.