Monday, November 19, 2007

ink-impressed tek-biz bound-bulk-pulp review “Revolt in the Boardroom” by Alan Murray


Winnowing down the stack of recent tomes rendered to me by others via the gratispherical outreach arms of their respective career-o-spheres. Free is neat.

Murray’s “Revolt in the Boardroom” is more of a biz-biz than a tek-biz book (but that’s fine…I’m feeling reasonably bizzy at this particular moment). It is a well-researched and compelling discussion of the changing governance practices of corporations in the post-millennium, post-9/11, post-Enron, post-SarbOx era. Written by an assistant managing editor at the Wall Street Journal, the book focuses on the steady weakening of the CEO’s clout and strengthening of corporate boards of directors, who are now far less willing to kowtow (or so Murray argues) to arrogant, authoritarian, corrupt chief executives. The book primarily focuses on US-based corporations, though it hints at being generalizable to a global scale (implicitly, there’s this assumption that America sets the lead for the world at large…which is highly debatable).

This book was one of two that were given to me at SAS Institute’s recent Premier Business Leadership Series Conference (the other book was Davenport/Harris' “Competing on Analytics,” which I reviewed in this blog late last week), an event that was, of course, heavily focused on software for corporate performance management (CPM). To the extent that there’s any tek content in “Revolt in the Boardroom,” other than a detailed discussion of the recent C-suite travails of tek-vendor HP, it’s on page 27, wherein Murray refutes the late John Kenneth Galbraith’s contention (in 1971) that advanced technology is making the economy more supply-push by strengthening corporations’ ability to engineer demand for the output of their factories. Here’s Murray’s rebuttal to JKG, citing the role of information technology in making corporations more demand-pull:

  • Murray: “[I]n fact, a revolution in information technology helped to bring companies much closer to the marketplace, providing them faster access to information on what consumer were demanding, and giving them greater ability to adjust to those demands.”

In the broadest perspective, the book looks at the need for strong corporate governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) management—though it looks at it from a purely business-trends perspective. Murray's discussion pays no attention to how CPM software or other IT solutions can enable more effective GRC measurement and enforcement. That’s not a weakness of the book….just a matter of scoping…indeed, the very final paragraph practically screams for a GRC/CPM/analytics-focused sequel:

  • Murray: “Academics have tried to settle this debate, looking for evidence that ‘good corporate governance’—i.e., an effective check on a CEO’s power—leads to better performance for shareholders. So far, however, the evidence is mixed. In part, the problem is one of definitions. What is ‘good governance’? How do you measure ‘performance’? At the end of the day, the studies are inconclusive. The choice between the old regime and the emerging new one seems to be more a matter of faith and preference than reason or science.”
IMHO, Murray is throwing in the towel prematurely on this critical issue. He’s implying that the justification for good governance is purely intuitive and qualitative. In fact, it’s way too important to leave purely to the warm and squishies. I’d like to see a follow-on entitled “Complying on Analytics”? Davenport and Harris—opportunity for you!

Also, reading through this book, it’s not clear to me what emerging new “regime” Murray’s referring to. He doesn’t conclusively demonstrate any enduring restructuring of the institutional basis for governance of public corporations in the USA or anywhere else. All he points to are a “new CEO” (translation: fresh batch of new folks in those positions are who are slightly less arrogant, more collegial, and more broadly stakeholder-focused than the bunch they’re succeeding) and a “new power elite” (translation: greater, albeit still minuscule, representation of pension funds, shareholder advisory services, social activists, hedge funds, and nongovernmental organizations on corporate boards of directors).

But this “new order” is just a matter of the latest transient swing in the corporate culture, responding to recent events in the economic, regulatory, and political arenas. This so-called “democratization” of corporate governance (activist boards!) can easily swing back to a preference for autocratic leaders (visionary CEOs!) once we get some fresh, charismatic new movers and shakers in the C-suites of this world.

We compete on a global scale. Chinese regimes, for example, are not known for C-suite transparency.