Miles Kington: When the corporate animal goes crackers

'The dominant partner in a merger has to be checked for appropriate behaviour, like a bull servicing a cow'
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The Independent Online

I had talked to the man on the train about all the unimportant things you talk about to people on trains (the lateness of the train, the weather, the scenery, the man with the mobile next door) before getting down to a personal question.

"What line of business are you in?" I said.

"Corporate biology," he said.

That threw me. I had no idea what it was. There are some long words I can never remember the meaning of, such as "epistemology" and "eschatology" (which sounds so like "scatology" but is so far removed). I knew what "corporate" meant and I knew what "biology" meant, but I didn't see how the two fitted together. Unless it meant the study of corporations in terms of animal behaviour. Which was plainly ridiculous.

"What's corporate biology?" I said.

"It's the study of corporations in terms of animal behaviour," he said.

Well, knock me down with a feather.

"How do you do that?" I said.

"You study corporations as living organisms and work out their behaviour patterns in terms of animal behaviour."

"Baloney," was what I wanted to say, but I didn't.

"You're probably thinking 'baloney' to yourself," said the stranger (knock me down with a feather again), "but it's a respectable field of study these days. We have come to realise that large human organisations do behave in ways that parallel human and animal behaviour. When firms merge, for instance, you can help the merger by seeing it as a sort of mating ritual, and working out what the appropriate behaviour should be."

"You mean," I said, "that corporate biologists go around shaking their heads like people do when engagements are announced, saying, 'It'll never work out', 'She's not quite right for him', 'Poor old Halifax', and so on?"

"Absolutely," he said. "Except that we're there to help, not to hinder. The dominant partner in a merger has to be checked the whole time for the correct mating approach, rather as a farmer is on hand to supervise the bull servicing a cow. Same thing happens in a different sort of way when a firm demerges. BT is on the point of going through a process not unlike a family splitting up, or even a herd of wild animals separating, with the individuals learning to look after themselves. I'm often called in to help with processes like that.

"Of course, the most striking example at the moment is the behaviour of Maff... "

"Maff?"

"The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food ­ the ones who are trying to handle the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Look at the way they are behaving. Exactly like a wild animal."

"Killing lots of cows it doesn't mean to eat, you mean?"

"No, no, not that exactly. I mean that Maff has been told repeatedly that after the next election it should be abolished or replaced. People go around saying that Maff has turned out to be inefficient, unwieldy, stupid and ineffective. Do people think that Maff can't hear what's being said about it? Of course Maff can hear what's being said! Now, if Maff were some sort of saintly organisation, it would nod its head and say, 'Yes, the way we work is not good enough, and we should be axed.' But Maff isn't a saintly organisation! It's an organism like any other!

"And what people haven't realised is that Maff's knowing that its very existence is in danger in the future is bound to affect the way it behaves now. It's under threat. It's been backed into a corner. Its life is at stake. Well, what happens when an animal's life is under threat?"

"It turns violent? It fights for its life?"

"Exactly. And that's what poor old Maff is doing. It's now culling cattle at a higher and higher rate, even though the foot-and-mouth epidemic may actually be receding. It's not acting logically any more. It's just its primitive instincts taking over. It's killing out of sheer desperation. Our cattle are now being culled because of Maff's survival instinct."

I stared out of the window at the passing countryside. Odd, but I couldn't see a cow anywhere. I stared back inside the carriage. My eye fell on a newspaper headline: "Pope says sorry... "

"Is the Catholic church also subject to the laws of corporate biology?" I asked.

"Is it ever!" he said. "Listen... "

I listened. I'll tell you about it some other time, perhaps.

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