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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 September 2005, 06:01 GMT 07:01 UK
Ethics man (and woman) on the march

By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Thirty years ago, the City of London governed itself by a process of self regulation, presided over by the winks and nods of the eyebrows of the governor of the Bank of England.

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Ethics, when they were talked about, consisted of slogans: "My Word is my Bond" in the London Stock Exchange; in public life the Golden Rule: "Do as you would be done by". Or, more likely: "Don't get caught".

Now things have changed, thanks not to increased morality, but a combination of technology, globalisation, competition and education that has elevated ethics as a public and corporate consideration - if only from the 'don't get caught' point of view.

The peering eye of the media and the "always on" internet has made it much more difficult for people to hide.

And when reputations have a share price attached to them, then ethical behaviour beings to matter.

We saw it at Enron; more important from the ethical point of view, we also saw it at Arthur Anderson, Enron's accountant.

Demanding customers

It is very probable that the 21st century is going to be very different from the 20th century.

We have lived through only a few iteration of capitalism: 19th century manufacturing was replaced by 20th century mass production, and then humanised after the second world war by team work and applied psychology.

Then came the rise to prominence of the service industries.

But mass production is going to become a mug's game in the 21st century, as the rise of India and China reduces much production in the west to zero profitability.

It is time for a new sort of capitalism; Western companies will have to find ways of reinventing themselves as they have never had to before.

They will have to take their customers more seriously than they have ever dreamed possible.

And their customers are going to become much more demanding, and want much more information.

Promise and delivery

It is all about ethics.

Really demanding 21st century consumers will look behind the brands to see what they really stand for, not what the advertisements claim in their insinuating voices. These consumers will demand honest, authentic, goods and services.

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The product will be in the delivered experience, not the ad.

John Mackey, the founder of American's biggest specialised grocers Whole Foods Market, has a dazzlingly modest slogan to guide his staff and his company.

"We under-promise and over-deliver," he says.

That is 21st century corporate ethics in a nutshell.

Power to the people

Companies that provide these Good Things will need clever people to manage them.

Ideas - streams of them - will be the only distinguishing feature for most Western companies.

And ideas come from clever recruits who will not necessarily conform to the required wisdom of the conventional corporation.

They will be clever enough not to be willing to hang up their own ideas, ethics and morals on the hat rack as they come in to work in the morning.

These powerful people will want to work for Good Companies, and make Good Things.

This process is much more than merely public relations, as many cynics suspect.

Who could imagine that extractive industry companies would be forced by public opinion into publishing social and environmental impact reports, along with their annual financial statements?

Difficult to ignore

Business is also a terrific agent of change, if it is pointed in the right direction, something ignored by noisy campaigners at global summit meetings.

Under the right pressure, and with decent people in charge, companies may start pursuing decent ends for profit, like General Electric, with its accentuated interest in the environment this summer.

Companies have remarkable power to do good, if they see a need for it.

The supply chain is a powerful agent of change; if a multinational decides that from next Monday all its supplies will be packed in recyclable packaging, its suppliers will do it.

All public relations, you think? Well maybe, but empty PR is going to rebound in the same way that we have seen through political spin so quickly.

Business ethics will need sharpening and redefining.

Powerful ideas are at work, big changes are taking place. Ethics are becoming difficult to ignore.

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends upheaving the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


PETER DAY: WORK IN PROGRESS

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