Multinational Corporations and the American Commons

Harvard Business School recently launched what it’s calling the US Competitiveness Project, which is “a research-led effort to understand and improve the competitiveness of the United States.” To publicize this effort, Harvard Magazine just published a series of interviews with some of the professors involved. I don’t normally like reading interviews, because they tend to have a ridiculously high length to content ratio, but these were quite dense in content, and I recommend the whole set of interviews as important reading for anyone interested in the state of US business or multinational corporations operate.

The interviews ran to almost 20 magazine pages, so I won’t even try to summarize them. But I will note a recurring theme, which was about American companies investing in America. The professors called this America’s “business commons,” which they defined as “a skilled workforce, an educated populace, vibrant local suppliers, basic rule of law, and so on.” They pointed out that “historically, American businesses invested in these resources deeply, and that helped to build many of America’s strengths.”

Copyright 2012 Thoughtbasket

Interestingly, the professors went back and forth between reasons to support America’s business commons, from what I call “hard” reasons (those that drive profitability) to “soft” reasons (patriotic calls to support America).

Hard reasons included:

  • Outsourcing calculations often overestimate cost savings
  • Local manufacturing can drive product and process improvements
  • For most multinationals, the US still makes up the majority of their business

Soft reasons were more vague, with a desire of “many in the business community to roll up their sleeves and do things in their communities” being a typical statement. Michael Porter (a giant in the strategy and competition fields) and Jan Rivkin define US competitiveness as including “raising the living standards of the average American.”

This all raises an interesting dilemma. If the role of corporate executives is to maximize returns to shareholders (this is how most US managers operate, although there is in fact disagreement regarding shareholder v. stakeholder approaches: read relevant articles here, here, here and here) then they shouldn’t care whether they build America’s business commons or China’s business commons or any other business commons, except to the extent that any given commons supports their business. In other words, if Jeff Immelt at GE thinks that investing in China’s educational system will generate higher returns than investing in America’s, that is what he should do.

However, I suspect that most executives at big US companies would feel uncomfortable with that. Since most of them were born in the US, raised in the US, and live in the US, there is probably some part of them that feels a loyalty to the US, that wants to build America’s commons even if building China’s commons has a higher ROI. How do these CEOs reconcile their duties to shareholders with their inherent patriotism? I don’t know. The professors in the US Competitiveness Project would suggest that the disconnect is not as great as many think; that building the US commons DOES have a high ROI. But based on my reading, it sounds like they would also give executives permission to foreground their patriotism over pure shareholder analysis, at least on borderline cases.

In addition to Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin, other professors interviewed included Willy Shih, Rossbeth Kanter and Thomas Kochan (who actually teaches at MIT, not Harvard).

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