“Big data” refers to information that is too large to be handled by a simple operating system. It can be used to research a broad spectrum of information such as purchases from various businesses, or the online tools we use to store photographs. Big data allows us to view big chunks of information in order to better understand the popular majority. While this benefits those who want to spot trends in the general population, it can underemphasize the importance of individuals.
The nature of decision making in work systems has likely influenced the way we understand and/or utilize big data. In the past, citizens would present requests for services or favors directly to a sovereign, who would grant or deny the petitions. As bureaucracies and communication channels developed, the distance grew between those making the decisions and those affected by them; it became easier for rulers to lose sight of the impact of their decisions. We can imagine that it might be easier to order the back-breaking labor required to build a monument (like a pyramid) when thinking of an abstract “workforce” instead of the faces of individual people. Detachment from the source of data poses similar risks for today’s business leaders, and presents questions about whether or not they are making ethical decisions.
Nonfiction narrative offers one way to personalize big data. By telling a story based on big data, one can re-humanize the people behind the data. For example, imagine a retail vice president reporting on sales across all of its outlets. By personalizing data in the context of narrative, the VP can paint a clearer picture of the customers’ needs and how the company might better serve this vital stakeholder community. However, before one creates a data-driven account, it is imperative to ask a few questions: what is the goal for creating this narrative? Will it be transmitted through advertising, a grassroots movement, social media, etc.? What impact will the nonfiction narrative have on its audience? What is the purpose of transforming the data into a storyline—for the betterment of others or to manipulate the consumer?
If we look to the Christian faith for guidance, we might acknowledge that God is the epitome of big data. God is omniscient and omnipresent, and can make grand proclamations about why, when, and how we live. Instead of dealing with humanity in the abstract, however, God persistently chooses to work through individuals, often men and women who are “average” in many respects. God called a shepherd to lead his people, a refugee girl to save his people from the Persians, and none of Jesus’ disciples were on anyone’s Who’s Who list. So what’s the lesson in all this? God sees the grand view, but engages us one-on-one. Data-driven narrative can honor the same commitments.
Big data offers us an opportunity to understand our world on a macro-level, but if we want to foster change, we have to connect with individuals on a micro-level. Translating numbers into a story that informs and influences, while respecting the people behind the data, can bring about the desired impact in an honorable way.
Kristen Voetmann earned her M.S. at Azusa Pacific University and currently works in the Office of Student Programs at Seattle Pacific University. Her participation in SPU’s Industrial and Organizational Psychology course, Hacking the World of Work, has spurred her growing interest in organizational development (and the role of ethical decision making).
Book Review: Alleviating Poverty through Profitable Partnerships: Globalization, Markets and Economic Well-Being
by Patricia H. Werhane, Scott P. Kelley, Laura P. Harman and Dennis J. Moberg (New York: Routledge, 2010. vi + 163 pp)
Patricia Werhane is the widely-published chair of Business Ethics at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia. Werhane and co-authors Kelley and Hartman are colleagues at the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University. Dennis Moberg chairs business ethics at Santa Clara University.
Book review by Bruce Baker
A New Parable for Prosperity
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll feed himself for a lifetime. So goes the old parable, but this book brings us into the globalized market economy of the 21st century with a new parable for prosperity — create a profitable business venture by “maximizing the yield of the fish pond and the distribution of the fish by truly forging partnerships with the poor,” and you will reduce, and perhaps even eradicate, poverty forever (p. 17).
The central thesis of this book is that social enterprises of various kinds offer a winning strategy in the effort to break down the social structures and conceptual frameworks that trap billions of people in the cycle of poverty. Through profitable partnerships, businesses, and NGOs, governments and coalitions of the poor “can alleviate poverty by seizing market opportunities” (p. 125).
Poverty relief has always been a pillar of the “social gospel,” yet this book barely mentions the biblical mandates, aside from a solitary reference in passing to Luke 12:48 (p. 39). Rather than support their case with theological insights, these four professors of business ethics rely completely upon secular constructs of moral philosophy to bring academic credibility to their thesis.
While their approach has integrity, it ignores the deeper spiritual significance of the evangelical truth which seems ready to burst forth from these stories of personal and societal transformation. Given their ties to the Catholic universities of DePaul and Santa Clara, I suspect the authors would not disapprove of this faith-based interpretation of their work.
This is a well-written treatise on the social responsibility of business. The authors succeed in their aim to debunk the false old “caricature of greedy cigar-smoking robber barons helping meek, barefooted beggars” (p. 124). Of course this is an easy target. Perhaps there was a time when that idealized image of businesspeople made sense, but no more. Gone are the days when Milton Friedman’s litany — “the social responsibility of business is to make money” — held sway as a self-evident truth. We now live in a new “complex reality” which demands us to “change our shared narratives about for-profit ventures and… recalibrate our mindsets regarding how poverty issues are most effectively addressed” (p. 17).
This “changing of narratives” and “recalibration of mindsets” has been Professor Werhane’s main message for more than two decades. She has parlayed the idea of “moral imagination” into a fruitful stream of business ethics publications. The basic idea is that we need to be open to new ideas, concepts, and mental maps in order to find innovative solutions to moral dilemmas.
In the case of poverty, this means needing to let go of old notions like the “separation thesis” (p. 62) which views business profits and social issues as entirely independent pursuits. That falsehood has created the mistaken impression that charity is the only viable approach to fight poverty. Similarly, we must abandon the outmoded idea that those at the BoP (bottom of the pyramid) are capable only of receiving hand-outs, and see them instead as truly industrious and motivated workers, consumers, and providers for their families.
Worm’s Eye View
One of the best features of the book is its ample use of personal, “worm’s-eye view” (p. 51) stories to elicit compassion and bring to life a new narrative of abundant hope in profitable partnerships that can alleviate poverty. Each chapter begins with a personal account of a true story which brings the book’s thesis to life.
Additionally, many fresh case studies are used to illustrate the business principles, such as Ciudad Saludable, a thriving enterprise founded by micro-entrepreneurs who figured out how to rid the filthy streets of poor barrios in Lima, Peru of garbage while producing organic fertilizer, creating jobs, and simultaneously earning a profit (pp. 97–98).
These stories are so ripe with the fruit of redemption that several of them might well serve as sermon illustrations. Notwithstanding the generally secular approach of this book, Christian faith comes out through direct quotes of people whose lives are being transformed.
There is Strive Masiyawa, for example, the founder of a telecommunications company in Zimbabwe who defied corrupt principalities and took a stand on his religious convictions: “I’m a born-again Christian, and that was a decision I took… [E]very day I must persuade myself that I am practicing my conviction” (p. 94). Masiyawa’s testimony gives voice to the evangelical promise of hope that underlies the power of transformation seen in these stories of successful social ventures.
Corporate Moral Responsibility
One of the most useful insights is that the notion of CSR (corporate social responsibility) is in need of reform if its initiatives are to result in truly effective and sustainable efforts to eradicate poverty. Unless a poverty-fighting project emerge[s] from “the corporation’s raison d’être, it can neither maximize its effectiveness nor be said to be morally good” (p. 69).
Businesses come into existence and succeed by virtue of bringing particular gifts of talent and skill to bear on meeting specific needs of specific customers. To neglect or underutilize these gifts, even for the sake of some ostensibly “good” act of philanthropy, would be to miss one’s true identity and fail to live into one’s calling with complete integrity. The authors therefore advocate new terminology — corporate moral responsibility (CMR) — to emphasize the link between a business’s strategy and moral duty, and thereby to avoid the mental trap of the “separation thesis” (pp. 70–73).
While the central thesis of the book is ably argued and well-supported through practical examples, its ethical reasoning and methodology come off sounding a bit simplistic at times. For example, there is the prescriptive advice to be imaginative and make decisions by “second-guessing possible outcomes” (p. 126). This habit of basing decisions upon the anticipated consequences of “positive and negative effects” (p. 126) runs throughout the book, and reveals a distinctly utilitarian approach to ethics.
Those are minor shortcomings, however, in this timely and readable book. It will serve well as an academic text, with a detailed 17-page bibliography, useful index and numerous practical examples. The new parable of abundant hope in social enterprise is well-told, and deserves a wide reading.
Dr. Bruce Baker is an assistant professor of business ethics in the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University.