Empathy And The Common Good

We are living in a constantly changing world. More of those changes are taking place than we have ever experience before, and for some reason people are shocked by much of the change.

But we shouldn't be.

Much of what is taking place should not really be surprising, because it is largely predictable.

All this you probably realize. The big issue is how do you get some benefit from the insight? How do you get to predict not just the what but the when?

I was listening to an interview with Jeremy Rifkin on the BBC the other day who was talking about the need to re-examine the philosophy that we have currently – built on enlightenment principles – and establish something new designed to reflect a global economy, a totally interconnected and interdependent human and planetary ecosystem. Very visionary stuff. (This is a link to the interview)

That got me thinking about the dilemma that many companies find themselves in as a result of the tide of digital technology that has first generated huge productivity gains and now threatens to utterly disrupt their models.

Enlightenment thinking is substantially reflected in the US Declaration of Independance – the notion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among
these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

That concept drives not only the individual but the whole of modern capitalistic thinking – in essence the idea that through individual effort profit should ensue. That travels from the individual through to his or her family and the ability to generate wealth and assets. It may or may not have been the original purpose of Jefferson, but it certainly is the interpretation nowadays.

This kind of philosophy travels through to the nation as a whole with countries whose politicians are tasked with developing and executing policies that will be of ultimate benefit to the nation, even though in some cases (as with Obama's recent health policy win) there are a lot of people who don't get it and don't agree with it.

In between lie the companies and their goals of profit to deliver on the pursuit of happiness for the shareholders through increased and continuing dividends.

But a lot of those companies are looking down the barrel of utterly unsustainable business models.

Their solution is one that is quite logical – they put aside their natural enmity with their competitors and go to their industry association and ask the industry association to act on their behalf, “for the common good”. This concept allows the cost of action and the benefit to be socialized, which generally makes sense.

But the problem nowadays is that in developing a “common good” strategy, which is what it is, even if they don't express it in those terms, they start to butt heads with players that have an even bigger “common good” position. These are giant corporate players with massive balance sheets and huge revenue bases such as Google, Microsoft, Apple and other whose brands have become synonymous in the public perception with delivering – not necessarily benefit to humanity per se – but certainly empathy.

The empathy that these companies promise – and deliver on in spades – is the thing that most of the companies that they disrupt do not provide. Jeremy Rifkin doesn't talk about tranformation management in the interview that I listened to, but does talk about the need for empathy on a global basis. I think this is a very powerful concept and is one that, if translated into corporate strategy, can help solve problems and re-invigorate profits. It is actually about delivering a bigger “common good” promise.

Think about content companies as a start. They are fighting a losing battle against piracy in their view. Why? Because they insist that ordinary people sharing content is leeching away their profits. In acting to stamp this out they move to alienate a good deal of their customer base and demonstrate their total lack of empathy with their customer. Now the customer may be wrong to share the content, and may be breaking the law. But having a customer that is wrong is nothing new. All successful business is based on selling people what they want, and not necessarily what they need. But when you start to alienate your customer you are unlikely to sell them anything.

Clearly the content companies need to understand that it is imperative to build empathy first and not destroy it. How do you get to do that when your profits are apparently going up in smoke because the latest iPod enables me to keep on it literally tens of thousands of songs? If I bought them on iTunes it would cost me tens of thousands of dollars. Clearly that isn't going to happen. Google enables me to find songs that I might want to download through a simple search mechanism. My Microsoft operating system allows me to develop data bases of information and to write down my ideas and more… Each of these companies actually has a very real contribution to an empathetic common good solution for me as a consumer.

The big challenge for the content companies is to realize that in order to survive and thrive they are going to have to learn how to deliver the same promise as these companies. It can be done, but it isn't easy. If it was they wouldn't be struggling in the way that they are.

But it isn't just content companies that face this challenge. Every business that can't figure out how to position itself and its model to deliver a common good outcome that is about the customer and not about the shareholder will find that it is going to be disrupted. As it tries to find solutions that are all about delivering shareholder value and not empathetic human value it will find that it keeps on going down a pathway that is ever more circuitous and doomed to failure.

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