Monday, February 27, 2006

The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism

John Bogle makes many interesting points in his good book, The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism. I'll touch on three that struck me.

First, he focuses on the importance of companies providing value rather than seeking market share. That reminds me of Dave Packard's insistence that Hewlett-Packard make a contribution and not merely seek market share through pricing or me-too products.

Second and relatedly, he writes (e.g., chapter 8) of professional firms being primarily responsible for serving others, not for generating growth. That resonates with an idea I've been contemplating for some time: growth seems like an unlikely universal goal of business. If you're acquainted with system dynamics, you know that claims of unlimited growth are an immediate flag to dig deeper, especially if someone is speaking of a constant growth rate. By the "miracle" of compounding, a constant growth rate eventually eats up so much of whatever it's consuming (market share, demand, resources) that it reaches a limit and has to stop. When it reaches that limit, it might just stop growing, but it might also collapse. Neither are likely pretty sights, and, especially if it's resources that have been consumed, much harm may have been done in the process. Perhaps the answer is that contribution is the goal, and that may lead to growth or it may not.

Third and still relatedly, he writes repeatedly of ethics and professionalism. For example, he advocates strongly a separation of powers between owners and managers in companies. He's reminding me of the importance of having good values, encapsulating those in a set of documented operating principles, and using those transparently to manage business. Making that explicit for me has been on my to-do list far too long; it moved to my to-do-soon list today.

Bogle goes far deeper than that, though. He writes of the fundamental focus of business in a capitalistic society. Read, wrestle with the ideas, and act as you see fit.


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