Sunday, 30 May 2010

Human Nature, Social Enterprise & Business Models..

Last week, from the comfort of lying prone in the grass on the sun baked Highbury Fields, I Tweeted a few ethereal thoughts on social enterprise business models. These were widely ignored ;) but a few people commented and so I decided it was worth expanding on, if only to clarify my original musings...

The original Tweets, responses, and my narrative clarification:

Recent human meddlings aside, Nature is the perfect system.. But how does everything "get done"? Does Mother Nature have a to do list? ;)
.. or .. 1) when whatever happens is good.. nothing truly needs to 'get done'.. 2) or when things do what they do because of what they are..
..then whatever happens is a direct result of the actual nature of things. It's an honest system in the sense that there's no should/ought..
Pondering how #socent can build on the real nature of people .. (assuming we think humans are basically good well meaning creatures).. create biz models that are more natural, less 'work' .. if we're basically good, the systems allowing us to act on this and *do* good..
..should be simpler? Or have we overworked our nature??
// Today's ramble brought to you by #zenhabits #socent & sunny day in the park.. ;)

@Ghww: Re @RedButtonDesign multitweet: I warn against seeking 'natural' solutions. Capitalists have always done this. & nature has no should/ought.
@RedButtonDesign: RT @ghww: "nature has no should/ought" that's my point, a system that relies on discipline of it's agents to uphold the system will fail things will inevitably act according to their nature, therefore you have to adapt systems to human nature, not human nature to systems. Problem is we've forgotten what our real nature is, so we need to get that back ..
@curtistim: @RedButtonDesign so, a truly 'social' enterprise that treats humans as persons rather than functional, fictional commodities?
@Adilabrar: @RedButtonDesign come again?

So, some confusion...
Let me clarify.

- Nature is a self organising, self perpetuating system
- Humans are basically good.
- Social Enterprise endeavours to be a self organising, self perpetuating system which allows Humans to act upon their natural instinct to be good.

Current Social Enterprise business models do not appeal to our natural desire to do good, they appeal variously to our sense of obligation, guilt, commerce or vanity. All of which are strong enough drivers to promote action, but none of which are sustainable as they lack a certain authenticity of motive.

Nature works as a system because the system is simply the sum of the given behaviours of the elements within it. As soon as you try to force nature to act against these impulses.. (want seasonal fruits all year round, want forests here but not here, more of these creatures and less of those..) you disrupt the system and it acts out, or fails.

Humans vainly like to think of themselves outside this system, But the fact is, we have a set of characteristics which are inbuilt and though we may very successfully train ourselves to repress and control these characteristics, we aren't doing anything more than that. They're not going away.. we're just learning how to displace them.

Interestingly, one of the things that many societies have done, is suppress the desire for equality by suggesting (falsely) that achieving a higher status is actually beneficial. Capitalism and clever advertising have systematically manipulated our natural instincts until we have a situation where hierarchies, not communities, appeal to our evolutionary instincts to protect ourselves and our families. It's not as simple as desire. We create safety (or an illusion of) by having more .. more money, more food, more power, more weapons.."more". Where as traditionally it was understood that the best thing for an individual and their offspring was to be within a community of equals.

Only now are we beginning to gain perspective and see more clearly that this is fallacious. Brilliant works like The Spirit Level clearly demonstrate that inequality doesn't just cause more suffering to those at the bottom of the scale, but verses an equal society, inequality actually causes suffering to those at the upper end of the scale to.

So, my thoughts were that rather than create a system of business models and structures for social enterprise which are then implemented based upon the inequality we have mistakenly promoted: to create models based on the natural sense of equality and species protection that we diverged from, prior to this. To build the new system upwards from the last healthy point of development.

If you do that, and look at the way we naturally wish to express goodwill and philanthropy - it isn't from a distance. It isn't by signing a direct debit to a high-brand charity in return for receiving their end of year report. It is by having a human interaction, a human, emotive response to the act of helping another. Doing good makes us feel good, current models of Social Enterprise disconnect the act from the primary benefit of the act. Much in the way that Milgram's famous study allowed people to act more cruelly than anyone imagined when they were divorced from the effects of that cruelty, bringing people together to face the effects of their kindness will, undoubtedly, promote them to act with a generosity beyond that which we currently account for.

Social Enterprise needs to be a force which enables the reconnection of our naturally good nature with the pleasure of doing good. The only way for this to happen is for the "models" to build upwards from true human impulses, not to build backwards or sideways from the capitalist mess we have created.


ghww said...

I don't believe you can credibly make any claims about human nature. As a race of people we are so diverse that to make any generalizations about basic common instincts or beliefs is at best problematic and at worst very dangerous. If you claim that it is human nature to procreate, you deny an element of humanity to homosexuals and the many people who cannot or choose not to have children. If you claim that humans are essentially good then you have a big problem explaining genocide and other brutality across the world and throughout history.

Nor do I believe you can define 'good' in objective terms. Every action is open to a huge spectrum of interpretation. That is not to say we should not come to a decision on what is good and what is bad, what to do and what not to do, what to encourage and what to oppose, and so on. We can make value judgments but we should see them for what they are: an expression of our own opinion, our own analysis, perhaps our own desire to do good. If we acknowledge that, it is far easier to consider conflicting points of view, to compromise, and to make what you might consider progress.

Anyway, your post was about social enterprise business models. This isn't a topic I know much about, but the key question seems to be: where does your social enterprise sit in the wider socio-economic context?

Does it sit within the global capitalist system, taking credit from the money markets and turning a profit? Does it sit within the so-called 'Third Sector', operating on a commercial basis but financed through public money or charitable donations?

Or does it sit somewhere else, outside the mainstream? Maybe it doesn't need money at all. Maybe it treats investors differently. Maybe it appeals to a shared desire to be kind and to work towards a common purpose.

But don't kid yourself that such a model is natural. You will have to build it. You will have to defend it from criticism, and persuade people to join you. You will have to compromise, and let it grow in ways you didn't expect or necessarily want.

And if you have further thoughts in this direction, I would be most interested to hear them.

Amanda said...

“I don’t believe you can credibly make any claims about human nature”

Psychology and Sociology still mythic arts of witchcraft then? :)

No, you raise some fair points..

First though, let me reiterate that I am not blithely proposing to have a unified theory of everything, in fact I was only expanding on a few thoughts I had while thinking over the weekend, so a conversation rather than a debate or argument may be most appropriate and constructive here.

I think when I speak of a “natural” desire to be good I am referring to an evolutionary impetus to behave in a decent manner to our clan/pack. More broadly, I tend to mean those things for which we have biochemical or otherwise accepted scientific evidence that it is true for the majority. I accept your points regarding the exceptions but I certainly do not believe that the exceptions devalue the basic assumption (not new, and not mine) that humans are primarily, by nature, good. In this particular case I am referring here to ‘good’ (which, as you say, is just a value judgement so maybe it’s just a terminology issue we have here?) on the propensity towards generosity, equality and sociability.

As far as business models go, I didn’t venture into the for-profit / not-for-profit / pro-profit / for-more-than-profit minefield. I have argued that space frequently from various corners in fact and my stance remains the same. Simply put, social benefit is primary. Pick the profit-model which maximises your ability to create that social benefit. Sometimes a charity structure may leverage more funds and allow you to deliver more efficiently than a Ltd structure or a CIC, other times vice versa..

My interest was more the effectiveness of the structure of the model to tap into (what I consider to be) our natural desire to help those less well off. On this front I noticed that in the current models of charity/socent it is often the case that multiple barriers (human ‘middle men’/financial/geographic, even) create a distance between the act of giving/helping and the act of receiving/benefitting

This doesn’t allow the giver to receive the positive biochemical pay off from their actions.

Hence my thoughts that reforming the models with this as a basic tenant would likely draw more money into the sector...

ghww said...

OK, if you are simply looking to explore ways of narrowing the gap between giver and receiver then I would drop the background philosophy. I will argue about essentialism 'til the (hugely diverse) cows come home, but completely agree that it's a sensible idea to engage people in community-based projects whether commercial, charitable or somewhere inbetween.

I can't think of anything useful to say on the topic that you won't already have thought about, except perhaps an alternative background philosophy.

I am reminded of Marx's theory about the alienation of the worker from the fruits of his labour. As far as I remember, he made the point that in the capitalist system a worker does not gain anything from the process of production: he does not gain materially, because he does not share ownership of the profits, and he does not gain emotionally, because he does not see an end result that gives his work purpose.

So look at how a investors or consumers can take ownership of your social enterprise and/or see the fruits of their input/'labour'. Maybe the enterprise becomes a membership organisation, maybe you find innovative ways of displaying your end product.

I'll shut up before I alienate you from this half-arsed post...

Amanda said...

not sure who's post you're calling half-arsed but..

I agree, the move towards co-operative ownership models and mutuals is likely to be a vital step in rebuilding the lost connection. (Marx is an interesting/useful reference I hadn't considered- I'll check it out in more detail, thanks for that)
Valuing more than financial performance is, again, not mine but I think vital..
Also, I do think that social media and technology advances have a role to play in bringing us closer to the 'beneficiaries' (horrible Aid terminology which again reinforces the flawed concept that 'giving' is unilateral from A to benefit B)..

anyone else want to wade into the debate? :)

James Brown said...

It reminds me of Donald Norman's concept of "Natural Design" which has the aim of designing into products 'affordances' which give the user instinctual cues as to how the product should be used. If you see a door with a handle, for example, you have a 'natural' inclination to pull to open, whereas a door with only a flat plate has a 'push' affordance. Hence we can design products, services (and business models) that employ an understanding of the basic instincts and expectations of users to achieve good usability.

Its interesting that you talk about developing business models from the bottom up. I completely agree, so many businesses and enterprises start by looking at the big picture and completely forget about the experience people have with interacting with them.

I see the social enterprise of your post as an almost minimal entity, a device for bringing customer (/donor?) and beneficiary closer without then getting in the way. But I think we can go further, by creating social enterprise models that build upon inherent associations and behaviors that we all have show.

One of the best examples for me is the way Mohammed Yunus and the Grameen Bank uses inherent social behavior as an asset on which to lend money. I hope that in the same way social enterprises will be able to leverage 'soft assets' like this to do business in a way that is more in line with inherent human qualities.

I do agree that cultural, geographic, gender etc. differences make it difficult to define what is 'natural' and what is 'good' to a large extent, but then the nature of business is competition and so the range of beliefs, behaviors and characteristics present an opportunity, not a threat.

Anonymous said...

From Tim Curtis (@curtistim) via Twitter...

"interesting blog, amanda. It turns on whether humans are 'naturally' good or evil. The truth is neither.. .a better model is humans are good, but naturalness makes them self centred. Goodness needs cultivating"

Anonymous said...

From Adil Abrar (@Adilabrar) via Twitter...

"ok, get it more now. Not sure I agree with your central view. Nature is often violent, indifferent, savage etc. However......think there is something interesting in the tension between business models and the human touch."