The future for Short Termism? Well, it’s short term!

Published on 
November 6, 2014
Will Nicholls
The future for Short Termism? Well, it’s short term!

Once upon a time it was always sunny in summer, it always snowed at Christmas & the world revolved at a much slower pace, whilst the former two maybe views from the rose tinted spectacles of age, the latter is undoubtedly true. Was the world a better place then or not I really couldn’t say, but the now ubiquitous appetite for instant gratification & desire for short term gain surely has a detrimental effect on the transition of time for all of us; whatever happened to the simple pleasure to be had in waiting for something to arrive, or the heightened pleasure to be got out of it when it did? That short termism is bad for the individual psyche is a purely personal viewpoint & moot, however in terms of the businesses that affect all our lives it’s a curse that if left unchecked will blight future generations in an unending cycle of jam today with no bread to spread it on tomorrow, with bust following boom as sure as night follows day.

It seems that long gone are the days when business cycles were measured in years, when the long term stability of an organisation was far more important than any short term outlook. The annual announcing of a company’s figures so that the shareholders could see the basis on which their dividends had been worked out has always been, but recent history seems to show that share value is now far more important than dividends. The problem with using share value as the measure of success is that they are far more prone to vagaries in a market or short term influences & can be kept artificially high; to compound the problem we’ve gone from annual reporting, to quarterly reporting to what is now almost a daily picture of a company’s share value which can then wrongly be translated as a measure of its success. The obsession with keeping it high will almost naturally lead to practises that in the short term do indeed meet their given objective, but without thought of the possible long term consequences lead to disasters that affect all of us, sometimes for a very long time. The epitome of short termism are some of  the events in the lead up to the austere times we’re all living through now; I mean, who in their right mind would have thought it was a good idea to lend money to people in the sure knowledge that it would not/could not be paid back? To then bundle up these loans into packets of thousands of borrowers & move these packets around the world for different banks to use as security to borrow more money from other banks they could then lend to more people that had no prospect of ever paying it back; to most of us this would seem like lunacy. But the goal of short termism was achieved & the shareholders were happy. It’s easy to say with hindsight that anyone that was involved in these practises that didn’t realise one day the tally man would come knocking & the debts would be called in must have been an idiot; & anyone involved that did realise that this would be the case, yet continued regardless, must have been a criminal, though when it really boils down to it, the vast majority of us benefitted from the excesses, drunk on the prospect of cheap & easy mortgages, even those that were in a position to stop it didn’t. We were all taken in either wittingly or otherwise for which we all now have the hangover, even those once happy shareholders. I hasten to add that this is not meant as a Banker Bash so I use this only as a clear example of which we are all familiar as to where short termism can lead & invariably does.

But there is another way, & maybe the winds of change are beginning to whisper, although quietly for now, in the circles where change can really happen. Progressive Procurement Departments are beginning to look further than just the bottom line of companies they award business to. Government Departments are being instructed to award contracts to Small to Medium Enterprises who are less likely to be shackled by hoards of baying shareholders; though I fear that one of the greatest challenges of Government is their inability to write Tenders that don’t almost instantly preclude the very SMEs they are wanting to recruit from responding to the Tenders, but at least the thought is there; maybe one day they’ll get it right. Naturally any organisation that awards business to another, needs to know that the company they are awarding to is financially sound, but questions in tenders on the subjects of cost cutting & redundancies are becoming more common, suggesting that long term soundness is taking precedence over short term appearance. But there’s more; questions on how a company interacts with its local & greater society are beginning to appear in tenders; questions on a company’s ecoego seem to be taking on a more important role in the awarding of business. Now I’m no fool & I do realise that a lot of this may just be box ticking for the time being, but I do hope that one day it will be realised that a combination of these three fundamentals will prove that a company with long term goals & a long term perspective is a far better proposition for society in general than a company whose only fixation is that of Share Holder Value. The basics for a company to truly become progressive can be encapsulated into the principles of the Triple Bottom Line, with a wider adherence to these principles bringing, may be not an end to short termism, at least smoothing out some of the troughs & peaks. I’m not going to repeat Gordon Brown’s claims of bringing an end to Boom & Bust, but maybe in future it might just be Fizzle & Just a Little Bit Broken (but don’t worry, it’s easily fixed).

So, the first principle of the Triple Bottom Line is that of Social Responsibility & for me the fundamental obligation of any company that claims to be responsible to the society in which it works is to pay the correct amount of tax in whatever country it conducts its business. It’s very convenient to forget that the people within a country that buy a company’s product are the customers that produce its profits within that country, & with that comes a duty to pay taxes back to those people, but I’m afraid forgetfulness is not really a defence in the avoidance of tax. How many times have you heard that tax avoidance is within the law? But again for me that’s no defence. There are many things that the law allows me to do but, for whatever reason I choose not to, it’s my choice as it is likewise with the tax avoiders; because the law says they can it doesn’t mean they have to, it’s their choice. It is a conscious decision & they choose not to pay tax to those they owe it to, it doesn’t just happen. Any company that claims Social Responsibility & then avoids paying tax in that society is deluding itself, its customers, or both. Whilst for me, the payment of tax is a fundamental, real Social Responsibility has a far deeper reach than just that & begins with the welfare of a company’s employees. These days I think it’s taken as read that a worker is paid a fair days pay for a fair days work, but it seems that organisations that really take in to account the well being of their workers are still few & far between; a happy worker is a good worker is an adage that appears to be lost in the mists of time but can be so easily resurrected with just a little thought plus a little expenditure. Then there’s a responsibility to the local area in which a company is based & where the majority of its employees will live. By using local companies wherever possible, not just based on price, & by sourcing from local producers wherever possible, the local economy will improve & exponentially increase the well being of a company’s employees as this creates greater opportunities for husbands/wives/children to gain employment in the local community in an almost self fulfilling cycle. Supporting local organisations, both charitable & business, is the true mark of a socially responsible company.

The second principle of the Triple Bottom Line is the traditional one, that of profit; now profit is not a dirty word, profit is good as without profit a company cannot do all the other things that make it into a truly successful company. However, the problem with short term profits is that they become the singular goal with all other considerations ignored. How many times do we see companies cutting costs, which usually means the loss of people’s jobs, just because their profits are down? They’re still making a profit just not as much as they were, or as much as they’re shareholders expect. Even the great behemoths of our own industry would rather lose people than admit to a reduction in profits, once loyal employees become little more than faceless, collateral damage in their war to keep shareholders happy, cast adrift with no thought to the devastation unemployment can cause them & their families. Obviously there are times when companies must let people go, but when it’s done purely to prop up share value it’s wrong. So all successful companies must make a profit, but a profit that is holistic to everything else the company does & not a single end in its own right, profit built on sound, long term business practises is what we should all strive for.

There’s an odd juxtaposition with the final principle as in most respects it could be deemed as the most important in the long term, but in the extreme long term is of absolutely no consequence at all. The Golden Age in which we have lived for the past 15,000 years cannot, will not last forever; as in a poem to Ozymandias all things will come to end, however grand they were in existence & our civilisation is no exception (though that’s probably the subject of another blog!).  At least with the third principle of Environmental Responsibility we do have the chance of kicking that can as far as possible down the road of inevitability & have a duty to future generations to do so. The current rate of consuming natural resources cannot go on for much longer as nothing is endless & from building infrastructure with as small an environmental impact as possible to making sure all unnecessary lights are turned off at night, businesses are in the vanguard of making sure that the generations that follow will have a world worth living in.

As I’m sure you probably realised by now, that as this blog is appearing on a Blue Chip website I believe Blue Chip to be a great exponent of the Triple Bottom Line, though whether this was an predetermined goal of the company or whether it’s just evolved over time as the right way to run a business I couldn’t say. Something I do know is that I’m proud to work for such a progressive organisation & that the feeling of self satisfaction it engenders is probably an obtuse benefit that most if not all employees feel; I doubt whether all other Blue Chip staff have sat down & thought about it in detail but rest assured they will all have benefitted to a greater or lesser extent to the Triple Bottom Line. So this is not a smoke blowing exercise no, even though it’s too big a subject to cover in a couple of thousand words the point of this blog, if indeed blogs need to have a point other than a means to while away a wet Sunday afternoon in June, is to give a glimpse in to why Blue Chip is the right kind of company to do business with. Secondly, though just as importantly, to hopefully strike a note that to have a successful company in its broadest sense it is possible or maybe even necessary to be truly successful, to look after its People, it’s Profits & its Planet.

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