"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Big Miracle: On the Societal Stakeholders of Three Whales

The real miracle at issue in the 2012 film, A Big Miracle, is not whether three whales can get to open water. Rather, the miracle that would seem to require divine intervention is whether the Alaska National Guard, the White House (Ronald Reagan), Green Peace, the media, a major oil company, and even the Soviet government can work together to accomplish the ostensible miracle centered on the whales. Watching the American “stakeholders” decide on whether to ask the Soviets for help, it occurred to me that businesses (and business academics) regularly misapply the term, “stakeholder.” Lest we have been inadvertently lulled into a state of complacency in assuming we do not stray in our use of terms such as stakeholderleadership, and corporate social responsibility, a film can yank us back upright.

In the film, each of the various parties identified above have a stake in solving the whales’ problem. This is not to say that all of the parties are motivated by the whales’ welfare. The oil company executive, for example, sees his company’s involvement as an investment in favorable public relations that in turn he could use as political leverage in upcoming federal legislation. Green Peace, on the other hand, is perhaps most intentionally invested in the whales themselves, though the increased donations made possible by the increased publicity of the crisis cannot be far behind. Meanwhile, Alaska’s national Guard seems invested in achieving “mission accomplished” almost independent of the specific content. Perhaps we can conclude that self-interest is not missing from any of the participants, but this does not mean they do not have a stake in the outcome. When they meet together to discuss whether to urge Reagan to ask the Soviets for help, the parties really are stakeholders in that their respective stakes are authentic. In other words, it makes sense that each participant would have a stake. I do not believe this is the case for a corporation’s “stakeholders.”

In the case of stakeholder management theory, the stakeholders’ respective claims on the focal corporation in terms of power in the corporate governance do not necessarily make sense. Saying that an environmental group, for instance, has a stake in a corporation that pollutes is not necessarily to give that group a right to some power in the corporation’s governance or management. In other words, the group’s “stake” may simply be an attempted power-grab, which is far from confirmed as justified. For one thing, such “power-sharing” would have to overcome the property-rights trump card of the stockholders, which is the basis of the directors’ and managers’ fiduciary duty.

Therefore, while it makes perfect sense to the participants in the film navigating through the crisis—which is itself a miracle considering the divergent positions they would naturally have—I do not see the “stakeholders” of a corporation when I envision how a corporation solves a problem. It may be that the term “stakeholder” is valid only at the societal level, where “corporatist” (i.e., different functional groups) coalitions of stakeholders naturally are the problem-solvers. At the organizational level, the problem-solvers are rightfully within a given organization. One would hope they would consider the imprint of their decisions on outside entities and society itself, but an organization naturally puts itself first—just as a living organism does. Self-preservation was the principal assumed goal of human beings in the political philosophy of the seventeenth century (e.g. Thomas Hobbes), for example.  By adding this point, I demonstrate as an aside how business schools could be better integrated with the Liberal Arts, rather than being mere training institutes (i.e., sycophants for corporations). Just as we ought not necessarily assume that we are using “stakeholder” correctly when we apply it corporate social responsibility rather than to societal responsibility, we would err in assuming that our universities are “on track” from the standpoint of higher education.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Narrative Catching Up to Technological Eye-Candy: The Return of Substance

Even after the century known for its astonishing technological advances, the human inclination to revert to a childlike state in innocently going overboard with the new toys proffered by still more advances as the twenty-first century gained its own footing. With regard to film, revolutionary special effects based on computer technology far outstripped any directorial investment in depth of story, including the characters. Even before the advent of computer special-effects way back in the 1970s, Charleston Heston starred in Earthquake,  a film worthy of note only for the creation of an “earthquake-like” experience for viewers thanks to surround sound with a lot of base. The narrative was bland and the characters were mere cut-outs.

Years later, as part of a course at a local public-access cable studio, I concocted a music video out of footage the instructor and I had shot of a salsa band playing in-studio. After too many hours in with the computerized editing machine, I proudly emerged with my new Christmas tree only for the instructor, Carlos, to hand the tapes back to me. “Now make one without going over-board on all the bells and whistles,” he wisely directed. I had indeed put in just about everything I could find. Back in the small editing room, I used the fun fades sparingly, as good writers use adjectives.

For years after that course and some experience shooting and directing public-access programming, I would recall the lesson each time I saw yet another film sporting the newest in film-making technology yet otherwise empty of substance. James Cameron was a notable exception, centering Titanic (1997) not just on the obvious—the sinking (by means of a real ship in-studio)—but also on a romance undergirded by substantial character development. The next film to successfully do justice to both technological development and depth of characterization along with a darn good story was Cameron’s own Avatar (2009). That Cameron accomplished such a technological leap in film-making without sacrificing characterization and narrative says something rather unflattering about all the technological eye-candy that has brought with it huge cavities in narrative and characters.

In spite of the release date of Avatar 2 being in 2016, David Cameron has put out a preliminary trailer.

It was not until I saw Gravity (2013) that I discovered a litmus test for determining whether a film-making advance has come at the expense of narrative substance. Sandra Bullock gave such an authentically-emotional performance that at one point I found myself oblivious to the stunning visuals of Earth from orbit. In watching Avatar, I had become so taken with Neytiri’s eye-expressions that the technologically-achieved visuals on Pandora receded into the background. As a criterion, the re-integration of dazzling technologically-derived visuals back into the background as emotional-investment in a character re-assumes its central place in the foreground of the suspension of disbelief can separate the “men from the boys” in terms of film-making.