Exploring New Dimensions in CSR

Corporations have been actively practicing strategic philanthropy for a little more than a decade. With time there is increasing awareness that what was once considered a management fad has now strengthened its roots many thanks to the growing understanding of the need to save our planet. But what about the people, the employees? How long would firms make people trade their freedom for money duping them with an environment fit for the body but one which confines their mind by means of mechanical job descriptions, fostering assembly-line thinking?

Perhaps this thinking stems from the heart of capitalism’s inhumanity to treat labour as a commodity. Economic textbooks may treat the exchange of labour for money as a transaction much like the sale of a bushel of apples, but we all know that in human terms, there is a huge difference. In fact it is ironical that, as a society we cherish individualism at one end, yet we treat labour as an homogenous input at the other. Commodities may have a sense of uniformity, but clearly human beings do not. Each person is a unique blend of different skills, character, values, and so forth.

Understandably, early proponents of assembly line structures were wooed by cost-reducing methods to boost efficiency and profits thus they could not see its detrimental consequences on the society. But as human knowledge expands and as experience has shown, there is plenty of evidence which proves that robotic work behaviour is playing havoc with the very fabric of society by means of dehumanizing people.

The Inferiority of Our Age

The famous Iranian scholar and sociologist, Ali Shariat once said: “A robotic worker becomes an instrument, simply a piece of equipment for production and his effort is confined to a monotonous job which he must do day after day and in doing, suspends all the characteristics which make up all his personality.”

Making minds one-dimensional also has other long run repercussions. For instance, it may result in a shortage, if not a demise, of ingenious human capital reducing our potential as a society to deal with complex, multi-faceted, volatile problems in today’s world of rapidly changing circumstances. Besides, knowledge and learning has its own pattern of diminishing returns, if one only keeps doing only a
particular kind of work.

Bertrand Russell, at the BBC Reith Lectures on Authority and Individual, states that with society centralized and organized to such a degree that individual initiative is reduced to a minimum, the age we live in seems inferior to the ages before, despite all the technological breakthroughs that we seem to enjoy. An energetic man yesterday was a painter, a philosopher, a poet, a discoverer and a scientist at the same time. He could be all this without having to associate himself with a centralized, specialized body of persons. Likes of Michelangelo, Nostradamus, Ibn-e-Khaldun were free men – and in essence it was partly this freedom to think and act which triggered their ingenuity and
elevated them to become such great polymath scholars, adept in diverse disciplines.

On the contrary energetic men today are tied to tunnel thinking in the name of specialization to reduce costs and gain efficiency margins. Rarely have we seen the same energy, same freedom and same breakthrough in the modern age. Incidentally, however, one of the last breakthroughs that changed the world we live in came from men who pursued their free will: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. The example of Gates and Jobs is not to advocate a college-less society (although, given the current education system I wish schools weren’t to fixate minds with theories taught as absolute truths – marking an end to our intellectual curiosity and making us slaves of the assembly line corporate structures), but to highlight the importance of freedom to do what one wishes to do.

Beyond Ergonomics

In a time when corporations have effectively mushroomed to be a major controlling group of the society, it becomes ‘their’ responsibility to elevate us from this sort of inferiority. Business managers should mature out of the limited CSR activities (such as good pay scale, ergonomics and a healthy working environment) they do, and embody the promotion of individual freedom, initiative, and cross discipline growth within the CSR framework. The framework should also ensure that purpose of work and purpose of worker are not divorced from each other.

These may be achieved by means of restructuring the organization, becoming relatively localized and de-centralized, employing flexible tools of management and by adapting systems to men instead of trying to fit men to systems. It is important to note that individuals with initiatives will not be able to pursue their dreams unless the company gives them the freedom and funding to do so, according to Nonaka and Takeuchi in ‘The Knowledge-Creating Company’.

These structural changes might result in a short run loss of efficiency in some respects but if brains are not to be paralyzed by way of tunnel thinking perhaps this loss should be absorbed to ensure sustainable long run returns. Failure to do so is a lose-lose situation for everybody. “Both employees and organizations lose from this arrangement. Employees lose opportunities for personal growth, often spending many hours a day on work they neither value nor enjoy, and organizations lose the creative and intelligent contributions that most employees are capable of making, given the right opportunities,” argues management analyst Morgan, in ‘Images of Organization’.

For those who might think these structural changes are not pragmatic, consider firms like 3M which is practicing at least some of these ideas for long. At 3M not only researchers can spend 15 percent of their on the job time pursuing their own dreams, but those from others departments are also encouraged to dream and endeavour to actualize it on the firm’s expense.

These principles are also incorporated in 3M’s internal corporate requirement that at least 25 percent of its sales must be derived from products that did not exist five years ago, according to Nonaka and Takeuchi in ‘The Knowledge-Creating Company’. With this sort of driving force behind them, employees, really, are much less likely to become like machines. And while measures like these may not help us lie outside the famous Aristotelian observation that “all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind”, but they would be a step in the right direction.

If we are still interested in a society that appreciates critical thinking, individual initiative, entrepreneurship and above all an educated mind with diverse understanding and practical exposure, then we need to revise the intellectually limiting ideas of assembly line production and labour mechanization.


Paul Krugman: The Accidental Theorist

Bertrand Russell: BBC Reith Lectures on Authority and Individual

Ikujiro Autor Nonaka, Hirotaka Autor Takeuchi: The Knowledge-Creating Company: how Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation
Gareth Morgan: Images of Organization

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Sohaib Jamali is a financial journalist from Karachi.

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