Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why Everything Is Not Business

Everything is business, we are told. Business, the discipline of making profits, is, to us, a higher ethic to strive for. In fact, it is the only ethic left standing. The Governments and its leaders style themselves as Corporate Leaders, rather than trying to be Statesmen; the Universities want to be 'business-like' rather than being 'academic'; charities and community organisations are expected to operate 'like businesses'; and even in families and relationships, being 'professional' is seen as some sort of ideal. And, this idea - everything is business - pervade education, regardless of the subjects taught, and we are constantly bombarded with assessments, deadlines and deliverable.

But what does 'Business like' really means? There is no one crisp definition, but there are some key concepts that pop up whichever way one defines it. These are 'outcome', 'measurement' and 'efficiency'.  

In any enterprise, being business-like means having a clearly defined outcome (or to strive for one, if there isn't a clear goal). This outcome is the centre of the universe, and everything else must revolve around it. Working towards this outcome is the way of the business, and means are always justified by the end. Being business-like means not to prevaricate too much about the justifiability of the means. Indeed, one may argue that businesses do care about unethical means because they may hurt the 'brand' and 'dissatisfy customers', but as is obvious, these thoughts are about the outcome - loss of business - than any other moral justifications. So, if something rough is needed to be done which may not impede the outcome, but rather bolster it, the discipline of the business would perfectly approve of it. 

The outcome-centricity also means that to be business-like, one must be able to Measure against the set outcome. This means two things: First, that any outcome that is defined should be expressed in measurable terms; and second, that while the means is exempt from any moral scrutiny, it is always subject to measurement in lieu. 

This leads to the third thing: The ultimate prize of being business-like is Efficiency. Efficiency is about achieving the set outcome with the least possible expense of resources, including Time, and being able to clearly measure this all the time. 

These three concepts pervade all aspects of our lives, including our private conduct. We are all told to become Highly Effective People by, expectedly, setting goals, measuring progress and being efficient about everything. Being serendipitous is considered a symptom of drift, keeping a tab of progress is seen as the ultimate virtue and being emotional instead of efficient an expendable vice. 

But this is where the limits of business-thinking becomes apparent and the folly of making everything business-like hurts.  When the end is indeterminate or unknowable, means can never be justified by the end, as anyone trying to define the end is lying. Some things can not made measurable, without creating a statistical illusion, and such illusions - like an University ranking - assume a life of their own once unleashed and pervert the very thing they were designed to measure. And, efficiency is not nature's principle - redundancy and serendipity is - and the quest for business-like efficiency distort our priorities.

And, one final reason why everything is not business: Time! Businesses define outcome, measure the progress and seek efficiency within a defined period of time, usually a short one - from a quarter to a few years spanning the CEO's tenure. But the social institutions impact a much longer period, families and relationships must work around a lifetime. The efficiency of business is apparently false and unsuitable when applied outside the context of business.

However, such explanations are unlikely to persuade people, because those who want everything to be business-like, do it for a reason. This is not to pursue a better understanding of everything, but rather to instill a system of value: Everything is money, everything has a cost, everything must be measured. They strive to box the human spirit, whose freedom has evaded even the most stringent of the tyrants and have become the source of all change. Accepting that everything must have a measurable outcome, and the highest form of working ethic is efficiency, is not just about embracing an erroneous way of looking at the world: It is a highly subversive political tool of submission.






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