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It is heartening to note that as many as six large Indian corporate groups have joined World Economic Forum’s Partnership Against Corruption Initiative at a recently concluded WEF India Summit in New Delhi. Infosys, Wipro, Godrej, Bajaj and Genpact have thus joined ranks with MNCs like Siemens, ABB and Rio Tinto in pledging to stamp out corruption across all their business verticals. Thirty more companies have apparently discussed concrete action that they can take to curb graft in their business dealings. A small beginning, but a crucial step appears to have been taken in the right direction. 

Corporates – Victims as well as Participants

To lay the entire blame for corruption in high places at the doorstep of either the politicians or the bureaucrats is like looking at only one side of the coin. The corporate world is not only a victim but also a participant in the vicious cycle of corruption that corrodes our economy and saps the vitality of our constitutional institutions. The fact that business has finally articulated its voice against unfair practices goes on to confirm that anti-graft measures make eminent sense as a business strategy.

India Inc willy-nilly becomes a partner in institutionalized corruption not only because of its need to line the pockets of those who make and implement laws and regulations which touch upon their businesses. The need to milk the exchequer to generate vast sums of cash to fund political activity also contributes towards the malaise.

Setting the Moral Compass Right

Siemens’ is a case in point. Based on investigations between 2001 and 2007, the German engineering major admitted to several bribery charges and paid fines of USD 1.6 billion to US and German authorities. The cases involved its operations in such far-flung countries as China, Venezuela, Argentina, Iraq, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

A massive clean-up started, starting right from the Board of Directors. A Compliance Director was brought in. Besides organizational changes, compliance teams were set up across all the business verticals. All such teams formed an integral part of the respective business processes but functionally reported to the Compliance Director. As a policy, internal whistle-blowing platforms were created. A conscious decision was taken to withdraw from projects and territories where it was not possible for the company to engage in clean business.  In other words, rather than confining itself to paper affirmations and lip service, anti-graft measures were made an integral part of the business processes of the company.

It is not surprising that Tatas, a group renowned for its ethical standards in business, decided to study the Siemens model. It is well-known that for more than a century, Tatas have maintained a steady rate of growth without succumbing to the charms of shady deals as a means to the end of making profits. The result has been a steady build up of the trust placed by the public in the Tata brand.

There are many instances of small businesses the owners of which suffer sleepless nights when asked to shell out taxes of any kind. Some reckless souls end up crossing the thin line dividing tax evasion and tax avoidance. There is no dearth of professionals who specialize in supporting such efforts, either due to pecuniary considerations or owing to the need to be in the good books of their bosses.

Quality and Types of Corruption

The World Economic Forum deserves to be lauded for its efforts to facilitate the anti-graft renaissance amongst India Inc. However, what needs to be realized is that the quality of corruption has undergone a major change over the past several decades. Way back in the late 1970s, it used to be either about bending the rules or for terming a “wrong” as a “right”. Now, it is mostly about framing the rules in such a way as to favor a privileged few, and terming a “right” as a “right”!

Corruption, as we face it today, has become more refined, operating within the legal paradigm, at subterranean levels. Corrupt practices brook no standardization; there are different kinds which have evolved depending upon the situation at hand.

The customary kind is designed to prevent harassment and delays. “Speed money” helps smoother implementation of a business venture, within the ambit of rules and regulations in force. This kind also covers a bidding process where all players do not get a level playing field.

The predatory type of corruption is one where those connected to power centers exploit business opportunities armed with prior knowledge of the development projects being planned. Again, all activities would be within the ambit of law, though there would be an in-built advantage in favor of the well-heeled.

The patronage kind of corruption is based on cliques. A team gets formed, and the proceeds typically flow towards the higher echelons. Private businesses as well public sector entities fall prey to this type of corruption.

Companies typically face internal corruption in such areas as procurement, logistics, outsourcing and the like. Internal audits are useful to curb these to some extent, but the real game changer is a clear message from the top, as also an exemplary reward and reprimand system for those who work in sensitive areas.

Then there is petty corruption which all companies and individuals face in their day-to-day operations! Eradicating this type could perhaps be the toughest challenge.

The Road Ahead

The RTI Act in India has surely been a very progressive step in the right direction. It has brought the corruption issue centre-stage and continues to remind us of the fragility of our systems and procedures at regular intervals.

The response of our business leaders to the initiative of WEF is praiseworthy. One would watch their future actions with a keen sense of anticipation and hope. If the business in India comes together and forms a self-regulatory Corruption Watchdog, it could bring in a major change in the way the masses perceive its conduct. Corporates can also resolve to make all political donations transparent, thereby dismantling one of the main pillars of our parallel economy.

The fact that India is ranked 94th out of 176 countries in corruption by the 2012 scores released by Transparency International is a wake-up call to all stakeholders to address this issue with all the seriousness it deserves.

Leaders with a High Moral Quotient

I may sound like a pessimist, but I do believe that just like the oldest profession in the world, viz. prostitution, the oldest practice in the world, viz. corruption, cannot be altogether eliminated. But all self-respecting citizens – corporate or otherwise – would perhaps agree with me that it can at least be reined in, if not eliminated.

For this to be achieved, both the Government and India Inc can work in tandem. The Government can pitch in by playing the role of a transparent facilitator of business and by renewing its efforts towards creating a more equitable and inclusive society. Corporates can effectively contribute towards this goal by depending upon those who have the wisdom to differentiate between right and wrong. In other words, by having leaders and managers who have a high Moral Quotient!

In the long run, a sound business strategy means steering a business by using a moral compass as well!

 

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