Wanted: an enterprise culture for the Nineties

The mood has swung against the Thatcherite business ethos of the Eighties. Now we need to build up a less divisive approach

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Last week's jailing of Owen Oyston seemed to bang yet another nail in the coffin of the enterprise culture. In the wake of the Maxwell scandal and Cedric Brown, the public mood has turned sharply against business. Its leaders are less likely to be seen as wealth-creating heroes than as self-serving fat cats, and according to opinion polls, only 15 per cent of the British public now trust multinationals to be honest.

There are good reasons for the swing of the pendulum against the Eighties enterprise culture. Hundreds of thousands of firms disappeared during a recession that owed as much to government policy as to the business cycle, and millions have suffered from the relentless downsizing of big firms that has now prompted even Stephen Roach, the guru of downsizing, to admit that it may have left American business not so much lean as anorexic.

In retrospect it is easy to see just how flawed was the enterprise culture that Margaret Thatcher so assiduously promoted. While there was much to be said for cutting red tape, restrictive union power and state subsidies, her policies promoted a very narrow and exclusive idea of business. It was portrayed as a minority pursuit for pinstriped young men and swaggering self-made businessman, as more about deals than making things or providing a service, and more about bullying employees than getting the best out of them.

Unfortunately no one gains from a climate of opinion in which business is always in the dock. In a capitalist system, unless risk, innovation - and greed - are rewarded, and unless firms can compete and co-operate in healthy ways, it is very hard to create wealth and jobs. The simple fact that prosperity has as much to do with culture as with traditional economic concerns such as inflation, investment and interest rates, has been taken much more seriously in recent years.

In America, for example, the Democrats are considering new rules that would give tax advantages to responsible "A-Corporations" that train and consult their staff. In Japan the primary concern has been to make business more creative in areas such as software where they have singularly failed to gain a substantial market share. In Germany, business leaders are worried about the lack of a venture capital industry, and the risk-taking culture that goes with it.

One might have expected Britain, too, to be asking hard questions about how we can learn from the mistakes of the Eighties without returning to the failed corporatism of the Seventies. But although John Major talks of making Britain the "enterprise centre of Europe" and Tony Blair is keen to reassure business of Labour's responsibility, there is little sign of fresh thinking.

Few politicians have yet understood that culture is as important as exchange rate mechanisms and tax cuts. Relatively few commentators are familiar with analysing cultures, partly because they see them as less tangible than the hard facts of economics, and partly for the simpler reason that they have spent so many years juggling with macroeconomics variables.

The first priority is to get away from the exclusive image that business took on in the Eighties. Fortunately one of the better legacies of Thatcherism is that a remarkably high proportion of young people want to be self-employed. Nearly 800,000 women now run their own businesses. It is striking how far the most popular contemporary business heroes - like Anita Roddick, Shami Ahmed or Richard Branson - are from the traditional image of staid white men in suits. Yet too many of the institutions dealing with business, from TECs to local banks, are still cast in an old image that is alienating wealth creators of the future.

The second step is to reject the idea that it makes good business sense to treat employees as disposable commodities. Few slogans have encouraged more cynicism than the mantra "our people are our greatest asset" which has usually coincided with swingeing job cuts. All too often employers have expected ever greater commitment and longer hours from their staff, but shown no commitment back. Yet in an economy ever more based on information and knowledge these styles of management are becoming obsolete. Highly skilled staff can literally walk out of the door, not only in software and multimedia but also in what are now high technology manufacturing sectors like steel and cars, where efficient production depends on motivating employees to share information and solve problems for themselves.

So far, the historic shift away from an economy dominated by financial capital to one dominated by human capital has yet to filter through to boardrooms, policy-makers and stock exchanges. But already many firms are trying to catch up. Some are looking at the arts and even theatre to understand how to motivate people to be creative. Others have set up their own quasi-universities (like Unipart's university in which there are no examinations and no qualifications) to inculcate a commitment to learning. Alternatively, some companies are still trying to give significant shareholdings to their employees - a kind of active popular capitalism that contrasts sharply with the passive ownership of privatised utility shares.

These are valuable pointers to a more forward-looking enterprise culture. But a more information based economy also has many other properties that render the Eighties enterprise culture obsolete. One is that the public is far more judgemental about firms' records on things like the environment. Another is that since many more jobs require people to work with other people, there is a far greater premium for interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence rather than macho aggression. A third is that firms too have to work collaboratively, rather than in splendid, individualist isolation. One US study found that firms most active in strategic alliances are making 50 per cent higher returns, and the world's most dynamic industrial areas like Seattle, Silicon Valley, Singapore and Baden-Wurttemburg, all rest on dense networks in which firms both compete and co-operate.

Add these together and it is not hard to imagine a very different enterprise culture to the one that took shape in the Eighties. It would be a more inclusive culture, and one more suited to an information economy in which wealth can be created almost out of nothing, as firms such as Netscape and Microsoft have shown. For politicians it may be hard to go beyond the familiar cliches about education, training and macroeconomic stability. But without an understanding that the promoters of a Thatcherite enterprise culture were at least asking the right question, even if their answers were flawed, Britain could all too easily be left not as the enterprise centre of Europe, but rather as a bit part player in a global economy where the new ideas, new jobs and new firms are all emerging somewhere else.

The New Enterprise Culture, a collection bringing together authors including Charles Handy, John Kay and Helen Wilkinson, is available from Demos, price pounds 8 (0171-353 4479).

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