Friday, April 24, 2009

On pirates, narratives and corporations

An article in the Huffington Post on pirates was forwarded to me lately, and it together with some other reading and thinking present some interesting propositions about how we see the world.

Firstly to the article. It covers two points. The first is the idea that the historical pirate was a kind of revolutionary hero escaping the shackles of repressive commanders in various navies. The second is that the modern Somali pirate similarly is a kind of revolutionary hero, defending his country from the ravages of "Western Europe".

To the first point, this alternative narrative about pirates is just as misleading as the notion of the pirate as disreputable rogue. The bulk of piracy was conducted by the British Government sponsored "privateer", whose mission was the pilferring of Spanish gold. If my facts are right the British Government recognised the benefit of having the gold flow to the economy rather than specifically to the treasury. (Niall Ferguson gives this good treatment in Empire).

The second part is the claim that the Somali pirates started out as a citizen defence force protecting the Somali coastline (not otherwise defended as this was a failed state) from firstly the "Western world" which has been dumping nuclear waste off the Somali coast, and secondly from "European ships" looting the seas of their most important resource, seafood.

Well, at least these "Western Europeans" are taking their waste back in the form of seafood that glows in the dark!

What all of these demonstrate is the natural human desire to convert facts into "narratives". This desire was noted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan (a volume I'm currently only part way through). It is a natural human way to store and manage "facts" to put them into narratives. The problem becomes that the causal links implied in the narratives are presumed to be real rather than the convenience of the "story teller".

One of the common features of the narrative process is to lump groups of people together into singular actors. Hence the pirate story features "Western Europe", while political narratives have references to actors called "the Left" and "the Right". These actors are perceived to act together as one, even though, for example, no one can find the planning meeting by which "the Left" co-ordinates its campaigns to, variously, create education syllabi to further their cause.

I was mindful of this narrative construct when writing a review (forthcoming) for the Telecommunications Journal of Australia. I note in the review that the author would be pleasing his Liberal party colleagues by his use of a narrative form of history, as a reference to at least one strand of the history wars.

What is more telling, however, is the way this fits with the reviewed book also being a piece of policy analysis from the particular view of one corporation. And it set my mind thinking that the typical "conversation" within a corporation is the narrative constructed by the management team to "explain" the events around them.

So in the sector I'm most familiar with there is the narrative that Telstra has about why certain things happen to them because of the way "the ACCC sets prices below costs". On the flip side there are narratives that ascribe sets of motivations to the actions of Telstra that are engaged in by other telcos.

The significance of these narratives is that they form the essential core of the "bounded rationality" of corporations (which I wrote about in part in this TJA article. The significance of this is that firms don't actually conciously pursue genuinely profit maximising strategies, merely the strategy that fits the narrative that is proit maximising. But as Taleb also goes to show, when we look back it looks like firms do pursue profit maximising strategies, but the reality is that this is only because, in the long run, the firms that survive are those that happened to luck onto the best strategy.

This suggests that the really great corporation is the one that can break out of its narrative. Ultimately this is what the scenario planning methodologies try to achieve (see The Art of the Long View. But a shorter route is available from pursuing Barry Nabeloff's strategy as detailed in his book Why Not?.

The warning bells should really sound when you have lots of agreement around the management or board table. That is when you have become embedded in the narrative. The alternative is to pursue the philosophy espoused by Paul Feyerabend (which is both the title of this blog and the title of a critique of the approach by David Stove) "Anything Goes". That is, conciously develop a proliferation of theories that work, and keep using them all. Don't prematurely settle on the one true narrative.

Going back to pirates and Somalia. In the end does it matter why the pirates first started to operate? Is the narrative at all helpful by explaining the cause, or is the only important factor the reality that there are pirates and their actions are now impeding the flow of aid to Somalia?

To put it another way, does the historical basis of Telstra's market power matter, or is the only important issue dealing with it.

After all, does it make sense to both (a) dump heavy metals and radioactive waste in the seas off Somalia and (b) raid the fish stocks from those same seas?

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