Speak now!

Following the US presidential election primary campaigns from afar, I have been struck, as have many people, by the great oratory of Senator Barack Obama.   For those of us with experience in non-governmental sectors or in foreign-aid circles, his style of speaking is very familiar — it is the voice of a community organizer, creating self-awareness and encouraging group action, and doing so superbly! (As an aside, since the nuclear briefcase and the bully pulpit are pretty much the only real powers of a US President, character, judgment and oratory would seem to me far more important as criteria for assessment of presidential candidates than the details of their proposed legislative programs.)

In reading some of the commentary on Senator Obama’s important speech this week in Philadelphia on race, I came across this post by psychologist Drew Westen.  In speaking about race relations and a US national conversation on race, Westen says:

“We can’t solve problems we can’t talk about . . .”

It is hard to over-emphasize just how deeply and profoundly American this view is. There are many cultures in which the majority of the population would take the precisely-opposite view — that we cannot solve problems we DO talk about, that solutions to difficult social or even personal problems can only be found by working in the background, behind the scenes, in the corridors of power rather than in public forums, where it is possible for solutions to be found and agreements reached without any loss of face.   England, despite sharing a common language and a common political history with the USA, is one such culture, as are those of North and East Asia.  Even when people suspect that open discussion may be needed to solve a difficult problem, they may still prefer to keep shtum, since the pain of enduring the problem may be far less than the pain of admitting its existence or of discussing it openly.

What is the relevance of this to business, I hear you cry out (or not, depending on your culture)?    I have worked on multi-national business ventures where this particular cultural difference threatened to overwhelm any other profession-disciplinary, corporate or personal differences.  In one case, a consortium of companies from the USA, Britain and Korea worked together on a joint venture where the Americans always tried to surface any problem and discuss it openly in the weekly project meetings.  Both the Brits and the Koreans recoiled from this approach, and the two would often caucus together before project meetings to try to pre-empt any difficult discussions.   I don’t know if the Americans on the project ever knew of the corridor-caucusing of their two partners, or why so many difficult matters were sent for “off-line” resolution, only to disappear or else be magically resolved, apparently without any discussion.

There are many wonderful qualities of American culture, and, in my opinion, openness and transparency are among these.  But not everyone thinks so, and it would behoove us all in an age of global interactions and inter-dependence to recognize this.

POSTSCRIPT (Added 2008-03-21):  It is also worth noting that some cultures may discuss problems publicly but only in elliptical or indirect terms.   Shona culture (found in Zimbabwe and Mozambique), for example, has a highly-sophisticated use of metaphors, parables, multiple-meaning-layers, and even songs, as a means of somewhat open discussion of sensitive topics.   The use of such sophisticated linguistic devices means that a speaker can intend that an utterance be understood differently by different audiences.  Not an insignificant reason for his political success is that Robert Mugabe is a grand master of these multiple simultaneous registers, of being heard to say different things to different audiences at the very same time, and of clearly being heard to say without actually having said.

Porous boundaries

Over at This Blog Sits At, Grant McCracken has an interesting discussion about the new corporation.    One of the features he identified is porousness, the idea that boundaries between an organization and its environment are fuzzy and in flux.  This has long been the case in telecommunications services, whose very business is connecting people.  So it is perhaps not surprising that telcos have been porous places for some time.

For British Telecom (BT), Britain’s largest fixed network operator, Vodafone, Britain’s largest mobile operator, was both a major competitor (when BT owned mobile network Cellnet/ O2) and a major customer (because calls from Vodafone’s customers connected across BT’s network, and for this access Vodafone paid BT).  At the same time, BT’s customers, both fixed and mobile, called Vodafone’s mobile customers, so BT was also a major customer of Vodafone.  At one time, each company was the largest customer of the other.  

This makes something of a mockery of traditional linear supply-chain analysis.  How do you manage a relationship with a company that is simultaneously a major competitor, a major supplier, and a major customer?  With kid gloves and internal Chinese Walls, presumably.    You may even decide to leave one market, as BT did by demerging O2, in order to simplify the relationship.

Because most telecommunications markets were once regulated monopolies, most still have a major incumbent (as BT is in Britain).   This fact often makes governments and telecoms regulators tip the scales in favour of new entrants, in order to redress the inherited monopoly.   A common procedure is to allow new entrants to co-locate their switching equipment right alongside that of the incumbent — even, in some cases, inside the same buildings.   How many companies, other than telcos, could tolerate competitors having dedicated space and equipment inside their own buildings?

And it gets even more complex.  As I commented on Grant’s post,  major users of telecoms services, such as American Express, often want direct access to the switches of their telecommunications services supplier so as to facilitate rapid reconfiguration of their service profiles.  Large telcos, such as Verizon, will often allow such access to their major customers.  But then companies such as AmEx, not being phone companies, often do not have the skilled staff to execute such reconfigs. So, Verizon lends AmEx some personnel, and a Verizon employee is sent on longterm secondment to work for AmEx; he or she may be paid by AmEx and report to a boss at AmEx, while retaining a career and benefits at Verizon, and physically sitting still in a Verizon building. Where do his or her loyalties lie?

Porousness indeed.