Marc Le Menestrel
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Management Conference 2007: Driving COWI Towards 2010

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by Marc Le Menestrel (13/09/2007)

Can you be ethical and rational?

An external look at COWI

My first impression of COWI has been strong and positive: what potential! What a diverse range of activities and talents! What a unique company!

Why do I have the feeling that COWI is a company of the future? What is the coherence behind such a broad range of activities? Why do I have the impression that COWI is unique?

To begin with the future, it seems to me that business activities at COWI cover two very distinct paradigms. First, activities that transform nature so that it meets the needs of human beings. Second, activities that help human beings to adapt to the needs of nature. If the first paradigm is somehow “standard” in our modern societies, activities at COWI already anticipate the second paradigm, which will necessarily develop because of the need for sustainability.

About coherence, it occurred to me that COWI has strong historical roots, and a discussion with COWI CEO Klaus Ostenfeld confirmed this. Alongside this history, one can also find pride in COWI’s communication. I feel that COWI’s people are proud of belonging to COWI and that they are not ready to compromise on that. History and pride, then, explain the underlying coherence.

About the impression that COWI is unique, I noticed that its websites, magazines and other documents are not really delivering a “standard” discourse about values. Normally, such discourses offer very “polished” messages. In contrast, I noticed some atypical statements in COWI’s communications, and even some contradictions. Paradoxically, I believe this raises a feeling of authenticity: we all have multiple selves and letting such diversity transpire provides personality to the communication.

The next question to consider concerns values: why does COWI put emphasis on them? My analysis is that the growth of COWI is generating a tension between past and future. The top management is willing to delegate in order to allow the regionalization process to take place, but it also fears losing control and diluting the identity of the company. Values are seen as a way to manage this evolution: they can be the cement to build a meaningful and efficient growth.

Besides these personal observations about COWI, I used a web-based questionnaire to survey the values of participants at the COWI management conference in 2007. Thirty questions assessed values such as individual interest, corporate interest, independence, caring for employees, adherence to rules and regulations, respect for the environment and integrity.

The results showed a strong agreement among the respondents that integrity was the most important value. Concern for legal and professional standards came second, with environment and rules next. All of these values were rated very high and with significant agreement among the respondents. Caring for employees was only fifth, although still positive. Independence was valued as medium on average, without agreement across respondents. Lastly, corporate and individual interests were low and significantly less important, with high variance across respondents.

The survey results demonstrate a very ethical profile for COWI, with integrity a strong and highly shared value (which links to the feeling of pride I noted earlier). High deontological values (particularly regarding compliance with external standards); a good sharing of values across geographical locations, and a surprisingly low value for economic interest (individual and corporate) are all positives for COWI and provide an excellent foundation for a value-based strategy.

However, my experience and research tell me that we need to move beyond statements of values if we want to genuinely understand the value of values. Indeed, actual behaviours in front of real situations, and in particular in front of conflicts of values, are major determinants of individual and corporate identity.

All sorts of conflicts can arise between values. I have made it a specialty of mine to study conflicts between economic interests and ethical values in business decisions. During COWI’s management conference, I suggested a series of typical dilemmas COWI may already have encountered, for example, reducing environmental damage at a cost, influencing key individuals to facilitate a contract, trading off sincerity towards customers against monetary profit, acting against employees’ interest for the benefit of the company or simply balancing one’s private life with professional life.

Given the highly stated ethical values of COWI, and given the fact that COWI operates in a world where money tends to be a prevailing measure of success, there is a strong rationale to prepare for conflicts of values between economic interest and ethics.

Alas, the standard discourses do not always help. The economic discourse argues that the sole responsibility of business is to increase profit, negating the possibility of sacrificing some of it for the environment, the respect of democratic values or other duties, the employees, or some idea of the common good.

On the other hand, the ethical discourse argues that companies should always do the right thing, despite the practical impossibility of such a position, as well as the inherent difficulty of defining what the right thing is.

Finally, the discourse of Corporate Social Responsibility argues that ethics pays, a statement everyone would like to believe but fails to hold systematically. As a matter of fact, there would be much more ethics in business if it was always paying to be ethical and such discourse is easily perceived as pure communication, or a way to make ethics a mere instrument for the pursuit of profit.

I understand that situations where there is conflict between economic and ethical values are not comfortable, but there is no rationale in denying their existence and their inherent difficulty. Individuals and corporations can gain a lot of analytical and emotional intelligence if they face these situations for what they are: difficult but defining. In fact, I personally believe that individual and corporate attitudes towards these dilemmas contribute more to individual and corporate identity than values stated on a website or in a code of conduct.

To manage values, a systematic and rational analysis of the ethical dimensions of the choices we face, in particular when our interest is at stake, is necessary. Instead of looking at ethics in a way that pleases us (labelling "ethical" the actions that serve our interest, and "unethical" the actions of our competitors), we should learn to identify the extent to which our actions are both ethical and unethical. We cannot learn to manage the grey zone if everything is described either as black or as white. Moreover, we should be prepared to make decisions in situations where economic interests conflict with ethical values.

To prepare for conflicts of values, one may like to ask two powerful questions beforehand:

When should ethical values be given priority?

When should economic interest be given priority?

Discussing these difficult but defining questions helps to draw a line in the grey zone, a line that expresses our true responsibility when making choices. It is also the basis for credible discourses. Working for a company that organizes such discussions beforehand is a privilege. Combining economic interest and ethical values is not easy, but it is certainly a source of pride to work for a company that genuinely empowers its managers, employees and stakeholders to try to do so.

Good luck!