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Poly-capitalism: what if we aren’t capitalistic enough? | Management Innovation eXchange
We pay lip-service to the importance of many types of capital (i.e., human-, intellectual-, social-, natural- and even spiritual-capital), but our companies are still explicitly and legally designed for the benefit of those who provide financial capital. Poly-capitalism is about recognizing all types of capital—and treating them like capital.
For all the talk about employees being a company’s “most valuable asset,” they don’t seem to feel very valued. Whenever pollsters ask people about how they feel about their jobs, a scary-high percentage report feeling actively or passively disengaged, unmotivated, alienated and/or exploited. Indeed, the perpetual problems of bureaucracy and management often revolve around how to select, motivate, reward, lead and/or assess employees so that they become more productive, responsible and self-motivated contributors to the corporate cause. And we’ve tried all manner things to solve these problems.
- We’ve tried pay-for-performance plans to get people motivated.
- We’ve granted stock-options to align employees’ interests with the firm’s.
- We’ve run team-building exercises and diversity training to facilitate collaboration.
- We’ve provided training and mentors and paid tuition expenses so people could develop their potential.
- We’ve practiced participative management methods to garner employee involvement and commitment.
- We’ve worked hard to create corporate cultures that celebrate our accomplishments and reinforce our values.
- We’ve even crafted mission-statements to give our work purpose and meaning.
And yet we keep searching for new ways to find, fix or fire-up our employees. Companies are now trying things like: phantom stock, SARs (stock appreciation rights), 20% time, sabbaticals, and flexible and/or “virtual” work arrangements. Obviously, we have yet to really solve these problems. Perhaps this is because we are treating the symptoms rather than addressing their root causes.
Symptoms are natural manifestations of underlying causes. Feeling disengaged from a system in which one feels disenfranchised is only natural. Feeling alienated from a company that ignores one’s individuality is only logical. Feeling exploited by a structure which consumes everything in its path is only predictable. And feeling unmotivated to contribute to a process where the lion’s share of rewards accrues to only a handful of participants is only rational. In short, the problems aren’t due to flawed, bored or misguided people; the problems are inherent in, and the consequences of, a flawed system.
 And I include myself in this “we” as I have advocated for, conducted, and/or taught, all of these.
The cause of these symptoms is rooted in the structure of our organizations. Specifically, there is a problem with one of the basic assumptions of our capitalistic system: What counts as capital?
The current economic system was designed with only financial capital in mind. Indeed, it was created at a time when financial capital was scarce while labor and raw material were plentiful; so paying particular attention to financial capital only made sense. But times have changed; and it now takes more than money to compete. It takes talented, focused, creative people who are committed to serving customers, inventing new products and constantly improving processes. It takes partnership with suppliers who integrate their internal systems and processes with yours, take on more responsibility for managing inventory, and contribute expertise to the design and improvement of products. It takes customers who can’t live without your product, tell everyone they know about it and share their suggestions for improvements with you. It takes a local community that provides a stable legal and regulatory context, an efficient transportation system, an educated and motivated workforce, and a healthy, vibrant political process. It takes access to a ready supply of raw materials and natural resources. And it takes investors who share and support your long-term strategic plan for the company. In short, it takes a lot more than money to build a business.
While business people were busy inventing ways to make money; academics (and others) have been busy studying a variety of other types of capital. The list of productive resources (i.e., “capital”) employed by firms to create value includes:
- social capital— the connections and relationships which accounts for a firm’s ability to attract and mobilize resources and provide the framework upon which a productive enterprise is constructed.
- intellectual capital—the cognitive and creative capacity to solve problems and design new products which is presumed to be at the heart of the company’s value-creation process, and therefore driving its earnings and stock price.
- human capital—the uniquely human talents and skills of a firm’s employees which enable them to provide personalize service and produce the company’s tangible outputs.
- natural capital— the store of natural resources and regenerative capacity of the eco-system within which the company operates and upon which it depends.
- spiritual capital— the deeply embedded values and traditions which provide a coherent sense of meaning and moral foundation for people and societies.
The problem with capitalism is a too-narrow conception of the firm as existing exclusively for the benefit of those who provide the financial capital. As a result, we systematically and structurally neglect the investors of other types of capital. The problem with capitalism is that it is not capitalistic enough.
All these alternative forms of capital contribute to a firm’s productive and wealth-creating capacity; but they are not owned by the providers of financial capital. Indeed, these other types of capital belong to, and must be contributed by, other constituencies—employees, customers, suppliers, communities, etc. The problem is that such contributions are not treated like investments of capital at most modern “capitalistic” companies. To be sure, there are efforts in this direction. For example, many companies—especially in the technology sector—recognize how deeply dependent they are upon the talent and ideas of their people (i.e., intellectual capital), so they grant stock-options in order to align and reward employees’ efforts (and often use lengthy vesting periods to keep employees tied to the company). By granting an ownership stake to contributors of intellectual capital, this is a step in the right direction. But as I’ll show, it only taps into one of the Principles of Capital Management.
Poly capitalism is a very simple idea: to treat all forms of capital, as capital.
Principles of Capital Management [PCMs]: Capitalism has been amazingly effective at nurturing, deploying and leveraging financial capital (albeit with a few notable periods of exception). The dynamic energy generated around managing capital—raising it, investing it, managing it and enjoying it—has produced an incredibly productive system. So what can we learn from how we treat financial capital in order to apply it to the other types of capital? I want to highlight 3 basic principles and 1 corollary. I’m calling them the “universal” principles of effective capital management, or PCMs, for short.
1. Return on Investment— The first, and central, principle of effective capital management is that those who contribute capital expect to earn a “return” on their investment. Capitalism is predicated upon private ownership of capital and the construction of corporations which give rights to those who contribute capital. Key among these rights is the right to compensation for the use of one’s capital. Here the distinction between investors and lenders is critical. Lenders have conferred control over their capital to the borrower with the promise that their original capital will be returned to them along with a pre-specified amount for the privilege of using it. In contrast, investors commit their capital to an enterprise without any guaranteed compensation—but with the explicit expectation that they will share in any benefits produced by the enterprise (in proportion to the amount of capital she has contributed relative to other investors). As a result, the rights and returns for investors are very different from lenders. Lenders are entitled to a set return (pre-negotiated and explicitly not dependent upon the performance of the enterprise; and often secured by a lien upon the assets contributed by investors) and in exchange have essentially sold their right to determine what is done with their capital (i.e., control). Investors have no such guarantee of return on their capital investment, but they do have a claim upon the net proceeds generated by the enterprise and a say in the governance of the firm. Therefore, both lenders and investors expect a return on their capital, but of a very different type and/or amount.
Under traditional Capitalism, only those who invest financial capital are granted shares of stock. Until the contributions of other forms of capital are recognized as valid investments, they will not be granted the rights or returns due to them. This has started to change. As mentioned already, many companies are granting stock or stock-options to employees in recognition of the value of their contributions to the productive outcomes of the enterprise. However, this is often conceived of more as a form of additional or deferred compensation for labor than as a return on invested capital. The perception by some financial investors that widespread stock-option grants are tantamount to “gifts” from shareholders to employees (rather than a fair return on investment for committed human and/or intellectual capital) reflects a misunderstanding of this first principle of capital management.
2. Replenishment (or Preservation of Capital)— The second principle of effective capital management is: replenishment. Every wise investment decision always considers not only the rate of return, but also the risk of losing one’s investment. The greater the likelihood of loss (i.e., higher risk), the higher the expected return on investment. There is an underlying assumption that investors expect to recoup their investment—and more. Risk entails the potential loss of capital, which is equivalent to the diminishment of the productive capacity of a resource. So even if it is impossible to physically separate an investor from her capital (e.g., intellectual capital), the value of her capital can still be negatively impacted (i.e., by obsolescence and neglect). Therefore, invested capital must be carefully nurtured, monitored and developed in order to maintain its productive capacity.
The old-fashioned agrarian term “husbanded” seems appropriate. The core idea of this principle is that every form of capital must be actively maintained and carefully managed. Historically, land was a more important form of capital than money. But the productivity of a piece of land is dependent upon several factors: its location, the local weather patterns, the quality of the seeds planted, the skill of the farmer, and the inherent fertility of the land itself. Without proper care the land could be over-worked and soon become unproductive. Only with intentional maintenance and nurturing (and sometimes rest) could the productivity of the underlying asset be sustained. The same principle applies to other types of capital. As we draw upon the resource of a particular form of capital we must be aware of the need to replenish and “re-invest” in the resource in order to maintain its productive capacity—otherwise we risk impairing the value of the capital.
While financial capital is invested in order to be used, it is not “used up.” It is used to build tools, acquire material, lease facilities, hire personnel, fund development, and the like, in order to build a productive enterprise that will continue to yield revenue in an on-going fashion. The financial capital is transformed into productive capacity designed to generate profitable outcomes, which in turn pay dividends to the shareholders and enhance the enduring value of the enterprise (i.e., the stock price). A good use of capital is one that will add sufficient value to more than pay back its original investment—i.e., replenish the original capital as well as pay a return on investment.
To simply burn through capital is to waste it. This would be like spending the principle as well as the interest of a trust account—a short-term “gain” at the cost of long-term sustainability. Wise capital utilization is as concerned about capital preservation as immediate return on investment. To consume one’s capital is short-sighted; yet this is precisely how corporations often treat the non-financial forms of capital. Many employees, who were hired for their talents, experience, motivation and commitment (i.e., human capital), are used-up until they are so burned-out that they are no longer as productive as they used to be. Or an organization’s culture, which takes years to build, but then due to neglect or misguided cost-cutting is dismantled and destroyed. Each is thought of as a valued resource, but neither is typically considered to be capital; nor are the creators and contributors of such capital given the rights or representation necessary to insure that it is maintained (i.e., they are not treated like investors).
Part of the cost-of-capital is the expense of continuously re-investing in the resource to maintain its productive capacity. For financial capital, this means increasing the principle (or stock price) to keep pace with inflation. Similarly, for other forms of capital, it means intentionally maintaining and developing the underlying productive capacity of the resource. However, given the non-financial nature of some types of capital, one cannot simply write a check to replenish it, which leads to the third, corollary principle.
3. In Like Kind (or, the non-fungibility of capital)— The third principle of effective capital management is an extension of the replenishment principle. “In like kind” means that how one replenishes a store of capital depends upon the type of capital. Not everything is reducible to money. The nature of the replenishment must be in keeping with the form of the capital. Many things cost money, but money cannot be substituted for all things. Additional compensation cannot make up for lost time (with one’s family, hobbies or other interests). Cash does not make very good fertilizer for the natural environment. A bonus check does not keep one up-to-date in one’s field; nor does a fat bank account confer spiritual contentment. Therefore, as we think of replenishing each form of capital, we must resist the tendency to reduce everything to the common-denominator of money. Each form of capital requires appropriate replenishment in order to maintain its productive capacity—i.e., “in like kind.”
For example, the “half-life” of technical knowledge and expertise varies by specialty, but is a very real fact of life for many professionals. Unless there is continual renewal and updating (i.e., “keeping current”) there will be an erosion of the value of the intellectual capital. And while a financial return is important to reward those who contribute their intellectual capital, they also need the resources and opportunities to upgrade their knowledge and skills. While doing so certainly costs money, it is a very different sort of expenditure than salary or wages. Too often specialized knowledge and technical skills— because they are expensive to acquire— are so rigorously leveraged as to preclude their needed upgrading. They are “milked” for all they can give and their value is literally sucked out of them; and when they are no longer relevant, or current, they are replaced or discarded.
Similarly, if a local community “invests” social and human capital into creating a healthy, conducive context in which to do business—i.e., a highly educated workforce, efficient social infrastructure, a stable regulatory environment, etc.—then to avoid paying taxes is tantamount to robbing one’s investors of their return on investment and capital preservation. But beyond paying taxes, participating in the life of the community through “citizenship” or CSR-type initiatives is not simply some charitable, “do-gooder” activity, but rather it is an “in like kind” replenishment to the community’s store of social- and/or human-capital.
It is important to point out that, when it comes to financial capital, these first 3 principles tend to collapse simply into financial pay-back—i.e., return on investment, replenishment and “in-like-kind” all boil-down to money. But when considering other forms of capital, it is important to maintain these distinctions… and manage them deliberately.
4. Control— The fourth and final principle is that investors have a say in how their capital is utilized. This might also be called the ownership-principle. Investors are granted voting rights with each share of stock and, as a group, have representation in setting the strategic direction of the firm and exercise executive oversight via the Board of Directors. In the same way, those who invest other forms of capital deserve a voice in how the collective enterprise is operated. The exact shape of their role in governance or the extent of their voice in the enterprise needs to be worked out (and will probably be different depending upon their role in the company); but the basic principle still applies: those who invest their capital in a firm have a right to help decide how it is utilized.
With this basic framework of principles in place, let’s turn our attention to applying these principles: how do our management innovations rate on these 4 PCMs?
Since companies require some amount of these various types of capital in order to operate effectively, they have had to figure out some way of acquiring them. Companies have tried a whole range of ways to induce people to commit their resources (i.e., capital) to the firm.  These miscellaneous methods should be seen to be the forerunners to a full-blown Poly-capitalism. But where they have typically addressed the symptoms, Poly-capitalism is an attempt to solve the root of the problem.
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Stock-options do a great job of providing employees with a way to share in the financial value created by their collective efforts (to the extent that it is reflected in an increasing stock price). But because it fails to replenish (in any way) or confer control (since it is a warrant to purchase stock at some future date, without any voting rights), it only satisfies one of the PCMs. In an even more immediate fashion, profit-sharing programs provide employees with a financial return-on-investment for their contribution to the company; but again, without any consideration for replenishment of the invested capital nor any meaningful control over the operation of the company (at most, employees can control their own level of effort, but have no say in the strategic direction or tactical decisions taken by senior management).
Tuition-reimbursement programs are on the decline due in part to difficult economic times, but they have been popular benefits at many companies for a long time. Curiously, some companies have treated their employees’ enhanced educational attainment as merely part of the basic suite of benefits—like dental coverage—i.e., something that every company is expected to provide. Rather than seeing tuition reimbursement expenditures as a mechanism to maintain and even increase the human and intellectual capital of employees, it has often been perceived to be “just” another expensive benefit employees can use if they want to. Education is certainly one of the important ways to replenish non-financial capital, it does not necessarily qualify as “in-like-kind” because often people enroll in classes precisely in order to add new capabilities to their portfolio (and thereby increase their marketability, promotion prospects, or enable entry into a new field altogether). In other words, it is often utilized to build new stores of capital, not necessarily replenish invested capital.
Sabbaticals, on the other hand, are both replenishing and often in ways that directly relate to a person’s current capabilities and interests. Extended periods of paid time-off from work enable people to travel the world, volunteer in their communities, or simply rest, read and relax. Time away from the constant work-a-day “grind” restores and rejuvenates people, such that they come back more energized, more committed and more capable than when they left. Sabbaticals can truly be a well-earned and much-needed change-of-pace from the routine. As such, they fulfill both replenishment and in-like-kind principles.
We could keep going down the list, but I think you get the idea. Looking at these innovations in light of the 4 PCMs we can see how some corporate programs do a better job of treating capital as capital than others. But none goes all the way. Some share a portion of financial returns (e.g., stock-options and profit-sharing) but without any of the other considerations. Others provide voice and opportunities for input (e.g., open-book mgmt, 20% time), while yet others focus on replenishment (sabbaticals, tuition reimbursement) and some in-like-kind (e.g., mentors and paid volunteer-time).
Of course, companies practice many of these methods all at the same time; so wouldn’t a combination of programs suffice to “cover the bases” for all 4 PCMs? How do companies, as a whole, rate on the PCMs? According to FORTUNE magazine, the “Best company to work for” in 2011 was SAS. A perennial presence on the list, SAS is an interesting case-study in Poly-capitalism. Their 35-hour work week, on-site daycare and health clinics, lavish exercise facilities, generous benefits and supportive culture all enable employees to focus such that they can be as productive in their short work-week as most others are in the typical 50+ hour-work-week. An extremely flat organizational structure and recognized accountability also provide employees with a meaningful level of control over their work. The ability to lead healthy, balanced, productive lives results in a fraction of the typical turnover—from which the money saved more than pays for these lavish perks. As a privately-held company, there is no equity-sharing or stock-options. But the combination of all these other factors more than compensate for the industry-average salaries—indeed some people take reduction in salaries in order to join the firm. Obviously, the trade-off of other types of “returns” (i.e., in like kind) are worth more than a bit more money. Even though SAS doesn’t pay exceptional salaries nor offers stock-options, it is still consistently rated as one of the best places to work because of the way it takes seriously the other aspects of life.
You don’t have to run a high-margin, high-tech software company to move in this direction. Hamel’s recent HBR cover-story about “the world’s most creatively managed company” described Morning Star, a tomato-growing, hauling and processing company in central California. They are pushing-the-envelope in terms of giving workers control—over their own jobs, their colleagues’ compensation, the company’s purse, who gets hired and the terms of how they will work together. It is a radical example of how much control one can grant to the rank-and-file workers. It was unclear how much the employees share in the profits, but they are paid above-market wages. They are also encouraged to learn new skills and expand the scope of their responsibilities. And the result is a workforce that feels anything but disengaged, unmotivated or exploited.
Of course, everyone is familiar with Google’s over-the-top employment practices. They do most of the things SAS does plus they offer stock-options, bonuses and something called “20%-time.” The freedom to spend one-fifth of your time working on a project of your own choosing is not just about control, but about pursuing your own passion and vision—which often entails learning new skills and maintaining old ones. And best of all, the most promising 20%-time projects are granted backing from the company; and successful ones have been known to earn their innovators 7-figure bonuses! No wonder Google has become the employer-of-choice for a lot people.
These efforts are all movements in the right direction and valuable mechanisms for recognizing and rewarding the valuable contributions made by providers of non-financial capital. But they don’t go far enough. While a combination of programs might treat many of the symptoms and resonate with the PCMs, the lack of a coherent framework for designing and justifying such expenditures means they are left to the “whim” or “generosity” of the current owners/managers. These programs are still considered to be “extras” and “benefits” granted by the company rather than “returns” and “capital gains” earned by those who invest their resources in the firm. Furthermore, these programs extend only to employees—what about vital contributions of capital from other stakeholders? These programs are patches rather than fundamental structural changes.
 Indeed, the broad sweep of management history might well be read as adaptations and innovations to address salient, new forms of capital investment.
Anti-PCMs: To bring this “hack” full circle, I want to point out how violating the PCMs leads directly to the problematic “symptoms” with which we started.
- If instead of earning a return on invested capital people are not compensated for their contributions to the enterprise, they will naturally feel ripped-off and think the system is unfair. So it only makes sense that they would be unmotivated to do anything more than what is absolutely necessary.
- If rather than knowing their capabilities will be nurtured and developed, the company’s incessant demands preclude any opportunity to upgrade their skills, people will experience exhaustion and burn-out. So it’s logical that they feel depleted and exploited.
- If in the work-a-day grind people never have opportunities to build relationships, maintain contacts, learn new skills or get involved in the community their lives become one-dimensional. This neglect of anything other than one’s work persona leaves people feeling that their lives are out of balance. As a result, they feel alienated from the system that fails to respect their personhood.
- Finally, if people are controlled and have no voice in the process, they will understandably feel powerless and disenfranchised. Their actions become disingenuous because they are only doing what they’re told to do. So it is no surprise that people feel disengaged from such a situation.
In sum, a workforce that feels disengaged, unmotivated, exploited and alienated is the direct result of an organizational system that violates the basic principles of capital management.
What we need is an expanded understanding of ownership. One way to accomplish this would be to create a new class of stock; one granted to investors of intangible capital. Let’s call it “class I” stock. Class I shares are not bought or sold in stock markets; they are acquired by committing intangible capital to the enterprise. Because class I shares are not purchased with money, they cannot be sold for money. They revert to the firm when the investor takes her intangible capital out of the company. The firm is free to re-issue them to another capital investor, or not. As long as the capital stays committed to the firm, the investor retains their shares. But such investments are renegotiated on a periodic basis (depending upon the firm’s need for such capital and the demonstrated value of the investor’s capital). The number of outstanding class I shares would represent the store of intangible capital invested in the enterprise. The ratio of class I to class A shares will vary by company. I can imagine some “financial-capital-intensive” companies where there are relatively few class I shares; but I can also imagine some “intellectual-capital-intensive” firms where class I shares outnumber class A shares. Like regular stock, each class I share is entitled to a regular vote in the corporate governance structure and a regular dividend payment out of net revenues. These two rights are key to structurally fulfilling the ROI and Control principles. And once the firm takes responsibility for the committed capital, it would make sense for it to undertake to maintain (i.e., preserve) its productive capacity.
The Poly-capitalism firm would be run “by, of and for” the benefit of all investors. It would be concerned not only with providing a return on investment for financial capital, but rewarding those who contribute social, intellectual, human, natural and spiritual capital, too. Moreover, such investors would have a say in how their capital was utilized—therefore, the strategic priorities of the firm would represent a broader array of interests than strictly financial results. Indeed, one would expect a wider definition of “performance” to be embraced which takes non-financial considerations and outcomes into account. The preservation of capital would become an important concern and expenditures targeting the development of the social infrastructure, environmental sustainability, personal intellectual capabilities or even spiritual development would be viewed as legitimate and valuable. In this way, the monopoly of control exercised by financial investors would give way to a broader basis of ownership with the rights and privileges shared among all investors of capital.
Doing so will require redesigning the governance, ownership and management of our companies. It will require re-thinking the role and task of management. Under Poly-capitalism the role of managers becomes one of mobilizing, monitoring and maintaining the contributions of capital needed by the enterprise. In the process, creating the systems and structures that enable such contributions is, itself, a contribution to the enterprise—a form of “structural capital.” As a result, managers become investors in their own right and should be accorded their rightful share of ownership. Moving managers from “agents” to “co-owners” should go a long way towards alleviating the classic “agency problem” implicit in the traditional organizational structure.
In short, Poly-capitalism is about recognizing and valuing all types of capital—and treating them like capital.
With due respect to Gary Hamel and the MiX project, we don’t just need to “reinvent management.” We need to reinvent the structure of the companies we create. Management is the ACT of organizing, deciding, leading and controlling; our organizations are the ARTIFACTS (i.e., systems and structures) within which we enact our management. So the “flip-side” of reinventing management will be a concurrent reinvention of our companies. We won’t solve our persistent bureaucratic problems until we re-design our companies. In short, in order to manage differently, we need to organize differently. We need a new vision of the corporation; a new logic to our systems and structures; a new organizing principle. Poly-capitalism addresses the underlying flaw of modern capitalism by taking what we’ve learned about managing financial capital and applying it to all the other types of capital. The future of management lies in figuring out how to attract, utilize, reward and nurture the range of capital contributions needed for business to successfully compete in the 21st century.
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