If you invest in Value, do your savings grow?


BLS stats thru May 2018

This past week, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued its May unemployment report of 3.8%, the lowest since April 2000. Yesterday, DOL announced the productivity of nonfarm workers, measured as the output of goods and services for each hour on the job, increased at a 0.4% seasonally adjusted annual rate in the first quarter.

Allegedly, this healthy gain in jobs and the modest gain in wages inspires investors who turn around and buy technology companies. Its why Wall Street Journal writer Michael Wurshoffer, describes technology investments as  “a popular trade that contributed to much of the nine-year stock rally’s gains.”

Like any pendulum that swings too far in one direction, eventually, it will reach its limit and then swing back.  That’s what typically worries economists and should make others wary too. if you care to think aloud with me, keep reading.

Faster, better, cheaper—increased availability and access to automation achieve all three. These attributes are also shorthand for the means that different business products and services.  The challenge is whether automation and digital technology both hybrid proxies also deliver positive business outcomes.

Personally, I’m not so sure and I’m not alone in my doubts.

There are a few wrinkles in this logical string of associations.

Productivity gains are key to companies’ profit margins, and also the key to wider economic growth which is why DOL tracks and reports the statistic. Without margin, business cash flow suffers and investments necessary to build and sustain a business shrink.

This is where hard costs, context, constraints separate the ability of different businesses not just the means of product/service delivery, sales effectiveness but also end-user satisfaction.

Generally, hard or concrete financial measures reflect the relative success of a business.  It’s why many businesses evaluate potential opportunity in terms of the potential for return.  Will spending on that make us richer?  The faster, better, cheaper paradigm is more familiar and the benefits easier to understand than hybrid automation. Technology too often takes special abilities that exceed the internal know-how or resource capabilities.

Opportunity is often in the eye of the beholder, it’s somewhat serendipitous, right?  A discovery at the right time, at the right place by capable parties who take and then make an opportunity real and tangible, is rare in the business world, but not in life.

In life, what do you do when you find an object of value lying on the street?  Ok, maybe you wonder why it is there; but I’m guessing you feel lucky to find it.  In this case, someone else’s loss establishes your opportunity.

In my consulting practice, I am fully conscious and frequently point out to entrepreneurs their strength and unique value proposition derives from their distinct vision. Everyone sees and interprets the world a little differently which is why it’s difficult for others to steal and realize a concept as you envision it.

In business, there’s only a handful of leaders respected for their visions: Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet.

Steve Jobs stands out for his ability to both spot and transform opportunity into tangible value for himself and all of us too.  After he spotted the Xerox Parc Graphical User Interface, he managed to shape the ability of others to share his vision, and ultimately create his interpretation.

Note, for him better translated into visual and thus simpler. His legacy company produces products that sustain a loyal fan base willing to pay a premium…so no, not cheaper. Speed? The design and internal integration of functions in all Apple designs make them both easier for users to get what they want, wherever they are and often as they want it.  His holistic approach triggered a revolution that we associate with mobility.  That combination lifts Apple stock valuations too.

What about Warren Buffet?

Between DOL announcements this week, Wall Street Journal’s Michael Wursthorn reported on value investors–of which Warren Buffet may be the most famous. Wursthorn reported some strategy shifts among value investors as their portfolio performance trails that of growth investors.Comparing Russell 1000 indices - May 11, 2011 Thru June 1 2018

Strategically,  I too was intrigued by his observation. Not for the reasons other WSJ readers’ comments pointed out –that value investors buy and hold, which meant several value stocks of yesterday are the growth stocks of today.  Apple is one of them.

The definitional debate aside, I focused on the comparative analyses Wursthorn shared and deeper questions than those probed in the article.  It seems that the nine-year rally in US stocks excludes Value stocks –a distinction traditionally linked to shares of consumer-staples companies, basic materials firms, and big manufacturers, among others.

Again, this week’s market rally, as Wursthorn mentions seems to favor “asset-light technology” companies.

I wondered, why doesn’t the automation we associate with advancing tools and systems for data processing match the impact of automation we associate with the aforementioned value companies?  

My ongoing research on advancing technology and automation made me aware that unlike start-ups, established firms are much slower to invest in advancing digital connectivity especially internally across functions.  Is that dragging down their growth relative to other firms more nimbly enabled?

The value sectors historically associated with leveraging hard assets benefit from financial levers that data-rich firms and their soft assets can’t utilize, e.g. securitization. So why are technology firms experiencing dramatic growth and advancing capabilities managing those soft assets by creating more convenient access and delivery of information to their users.

Notice I didn’t mention productivity, and I don’t know how worker productivity between the two types of firms compare.

I do know that digital transformations are closing lots of process gaps. They accelerate both the review and interpretation of data and advance the flow of information to reach the right party in real time.

There’s an art to understanding “use” timetables for different information requests. Just as there’s an art to differentiating wanted from needed information, and the degree price, trust, and safety factor into a buyer’s value equation.

Does the artistry translate into an intrinsic value that an investor would be able to recognize and leverage?

I read with great interest a piece by Chad Syverson, an economist at University of Chicago’s Booth School of business entitled  Why hasn’t technology sped productivity? His analysis challenges the traditional constructs and associations that drive value and growth. He writes:

“Making better things using the same amount of resources, or making the same things using fewer resources, is, in the end, where economic growth comes from. If this phenomenon is taking place, you should see it in the data reflected as productivity growth. The problem is, if you go look for it in the United States, you don’t find it.” 

His analysis also points out how productivity growth has been elusive for considerably longer than the observation window Wursthorn shared in the Wall Street Journal this past week.  Instead, Syverson notes the role played by the diffusion of technology I mentioned earlier. Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm differentiates the phases of adoption and their effects on invested capital returns too.

smithhouse-design-digital-marketing-consulting-phoenix-crossing-the-chasm

Now, you can appreciate how Warren Buffet, the quintessential value investor didn’t see any signs of value he would recognize.  His cash pile estimated to be about $110 billion gives him greater flexibility to put the money to work but only if he and his partner spot it. For example, fundamental investor theory doesn’t value Amazon’s capabilities to disrupt the wider retail market. So this company escaped his notice, to which he explained: “I was too dumb to realize what was going to happen,” he said.

It’s actually understandable for a traditional investor using accounting principles to evaluate an opportunity to overlook the newer forms in which value is created. Until recently, few companies data assets were capable of driving outsized growth. And don’t forget, data holdings remain footnotes not assets on balance sheets.

As a researcher and advisor, my job is to find opportunity but also justify its investment value. It’s why I encourage you to notice the methods and sources of data that academics and journalists evaluate, and what is possible for you to collect, acquire and combine.  These methods of analysis,  interconnected automation processes, and sources of data also differentiate digital economy leaders from laggards.

Businessman having a coffee break

Take a moment to picture decision-makers assembled in a board room.  The data generated, repackaged as information and presented likely resembles the charts printed in the WSJ and the Chicago Booth Magazine.  It also varies dramatically from what a retail sales associate needs to process, or an executive landing at the airport in a city they’ve never been where the language and customs are completely foreign.

Oddly, the unity of experience and shared behaviors of each of these individuals when they touch and access the most ubiquitous automation assistant prejudices each of their expectations.  Apple’s recent announcement of the FALL iOS release focuses on enhancing the personal experience and further adoption of productivity applications that compress steps and further simplify adoption and use.  Are these same journeys part of the strategic vision or neglected by CEOs.

The separation of technology to support functional activities in an organization competes with the personal behaviors enabled by mobile technologies.  As Syverson points out the diffusion of new technology within an enterprise slows productivity and its benefits come in multiple waves.

He hopes to see another retrenchment. I’m hopeful too, that organizational productivity will follow the behaviors and experiences using consumer technologies begin to spread across multiple functions at work.  Remember the difference between the specific and deep domain knowledge of these technologies doesn’t come close to the rapidity humans adapt and more importantly learn.

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Curious Times and Curious corporate bedfellows


Dear Jeff, Jamie and Warren

We haven’t met, but each of you express a candor that suggests you are open to informal input.

Image result for Dimon bezos buffett

Naturally, I was not alone in my surprise over  your companies- JPMorgan Chase, Berkshire Hathaway and Amazon announced plan to enter the healthcare marketplace.  The cover story I saw, explained your unified commitment to contain, if not reduce employee healthcare costs, without mentioning  any specifics.

My first thought was perhaps this was a prelude to a presidential bid.  The announcement’s bold leadership play has garnered great public enthusiasm.  My second thought recognized  the power vacuum that followed the failure of the national government to make change. Your united commitment, and unspoken appeal for other CEOs to join you could create further momentum for market driven change.

These thoughts still didn’t feel quite right. I remain optimistic and root loudly for other change agents to shift the tide.  As we all know, the challenge to deliver healthy outcomes and affordable healthcare for all are not one dimensional. The complicated systems presently in place fail to address the larger complex inter-relationships between community and individual health.

Have you read David Freedman’s recent assessment of US healthcare system conundrum?  It’s not that long, and should be a required read for every team  contemplating entering this space. He writes

“It’s easy to think of “health” as just another category of social-service spending. But a great deal of modern research suggests that it might be more accurate to think of it as the payoff of all the other services put together.

Are you Seizing advantage or opportunity?

I do hope this announcement, in spite of subsequent commentary suggesting otherwise, that your three musketeer esprit de corp adds up to more than a pure group purchase power play. Elizabeth Rosenthal commentary in the NYTimes explains

“Together, these three behemoth corporations will be able to wrest great deals and discounts in their negotiations from hospital systems, drug manufacturers, medical device makers and doctors’ groups.”

OK, it’s why I’m asking you to widen your goal. Don’t  settle for negotiating a better deal than what  present healthcare arrangements are able to wrangle.

To Jeff, I wondered why you sought out Jamie and Warren to play in an arena internally Amazon team’s have been working, and compromise your reputation and general industry slaying capacity? Amazon’s platform successfully  delivers efficiency and value to end users. Are you suddenly squeamish about squeezing healthcare providers and yes, your employees too?  Scott Galloway, the NYU Stern faculty describes in The Four  your outsized vision has long exceeded the pure e-commerce play that is Amazon today.  Galloway further empathizes your tireless advocacy for technology  touched by realism about automation’s impact and downstream effect on wages.

These last points makes Jamie a strange bedfellow, as the banking business depends on individuals’ with incomes.  But that’s a different letter and article.  Jamie, under your leadership JP Morgan Chase offers expertise in compliance, as well as payments and savings that can create some cost saving synergies in Healthcare.  More importantly, both industries service and needs are intensely local and subject to state regulations.  The consolidations in both banking and healthcare had to rethink bricks and mortar location and staffing. Increasingly, financial services delivery via un-staffed, self-standing kiosks/ATMs and/or rely on mobile enabled applications. Banks, relative to healthcare, historically leveraged technology savvy to fuel growth balance risk and reward effectively and efficiently.  Jamie your investments and innovation, though slow starting, and less evenly distributed across the investment, consumer and commercial bank–they do suggest you can leverage the to deliver greater opportunities and create value in  Healthcare.

Warren,  I’m also hoping these are a few of the elements of value you spotted too.  Again, several closer observers of your group planning reiterate that limiting your collective primary intention to lowering employee healthcare costs, reduces the life value of the proposal. That shortsighted objective is certainly not likely to deliver the return on investment necessary to make a dent.  I’m counting on you Warren, and your experiences creating larger and profitable opportunities from reorganization.

The flaws in a hasty solution

I’m equally certain you all noticed the dramatic rise of Net Income among healthcare insurers.  If you haven’t finished a deeper analysis, start with this one by the Leavitt group that reveals a more complex picture.  “[I]nsurers made money in the Medicare, Medicaid and group health insurance markets and lost money in the individual market, which is why some of them exited the individual market in many states.” 

As early as 2006, Michael Porter summarizes the strategic dynamics and cost challenges associated with creating quality healthcare outcomes in   Redefining Health Care: Creating Value-Based Competition on Results.  The environment he  describes of dysfunctional competition leads  players to “strive not to create value, but to capture more revenue, shift costs, and restrict services.” Porter felt that healthcare lacked discipline and a management and business focus.

Jeff, Jamie and Warren is that your take too?

I don’t know if it was conversations at Davos and chats with deeply knowledgeable wranglers of this problem that inspired you to act.

I’m inspired by data. As the Affordable Care Act continues to make available additional data, it’s possible to learn more about what works.

Since 2006, researchers in both social and medical science enable more models of service and extends understanding of human health at the individual and population level. Much of healthcare activities used population data to allocate resources. Efforts to reduce costs associated with an individual can now take into consideration individuals’ behaviors.  Continued use of aggregate process and success measures mask the affects of too many associated care conditions and reactive activities.

There’s a complex relationship among these issues, and how they are translated into interventions and dosage appear to prevent rather than deliver consistent beneficial outcomes. Hilary Hatch the CEO of Vital sign offered this explanation:

“Population health puts people into categories by conditions (diabetes, hypertension, depression), age, lab results and medical billing data. These categories presume their own importance. When in fact, psychosocial, behavioral and environmental factors determine individual health far more.  Patient goals, preferences and barriers to care tell us what stands between that patient and better health. Without this data, population health efforts are undermined.

The explosion of personal health monitoring devices correspond with more data that contribute to advancing understanding of the workings of the human body.  Another entrepreneur, Mario Schlosser recognized that “no entity in healthcare  has enough data visibility to help you[individuals] navigate the system.”

Is this your collective aspiration too?

Why not just partner with Success?

A few weeks ago, I attended a presentation at Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center by the Chief Medical officer for Oak Street Health, Griffin Myers  This new medical group does not serve everyone, but the patient population they do serve have consistently better outcomes.  The business model that Oak Street Health adopted throws out the traditional fee for service model insurers favor. Instead they get paid when they deliver services that work, the successful outcomes embodied by Accountable Care Organizations as specified in the Affordable Care Act.   Oak Street established a value-based care delivery model exclusively serving  Medicare (and Medicaid dual-eligible) patients in low income areas. They presently operate 24 clinics across Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

This intereview with Griffin Myers on Tasty Trade gives a great overview

Another alternative model of care that should inspire the three of you is Oscar Health, whose estimated valuation of $2.7billion, and claims to be the first technology-based insurance company. Mario Schlosser, an immigrant from Germany realized before the birth of his first child an opportunity to put his own special skills as a data scientist to work.  His first hand experience navigating the complexity of  the healthcare system led him create Oscar Health in 2012. The company “uses data and product design to guide you through your health care and get you healthy.” As of Oct 2017, he has raised over $720 million and  delivers over 100,000 patients  concierge style team care in New York, New Jersey, San Francisco, Cleveland, Nashville, Austin, San Antonio, LA and Orange County.  Note, many of these cities feature innovative health care service providers but  boast a volume of technology talent too.

This interview with Mario on Techcrunch Disrupt in 2017 is a good overview.

 

Both these approaches recognize that healthcare requires high touch, and a constellation of services to produce the desired outcome.  Both of these innovative for profit companies are heavily invested in use of  data and  technology.

So Jeff, Jamie and Warren under your leadership, will you be equally committed to  facilitating connections between traditional care givers, services and systems or just cut out the human to human touch?

Whatever you do, it will be interesting and I’d be happy to help.

Social Impact Strategies: Muscle, Teeth and Bone


In the advent of the sequester bringing the expiration of the continuing budget resolution on March 27, and theWashington DC

2013 budget battles raging in Washington, my concerns echo many others. This gridlock loses sight of opportunities and mechanisms to create demonstrable, sustainable solutions to larger societal issues.

OK, I realize that a $3.6 trillion Federal budget, makes it hard to understand

$85 billion mandatory across-the-board federal budget cuts. Reportedly, the cuts spare many aid programs serving the poorest and most vulnerable Americans.  Putting aside personal politics, little doubt exists that current needs outstrip the quantity and quality of dedicated resources to meet them. Particularly troubling, the March 1 cuts disproportionately affect low-income Americans  adding additional burdens on resource strained charities. The emotions released by the congressional battle further complicate objective program evaluation and consideration of where and what programs warrant

cutting vs. preserving.  It also avoids honest discussion of  historic questions.

What should and can be the net value, or efficacy, of federal funded grants and programs to meet these needs?

The complex interactions, mechanisms and incentives by which government, private enterprise and the third sector operate in the social arena make alternative scenarios and innovation difficult but not impossible.  Change may come based on a new budget requirement that I hope will unleash much-needed adjustments to the system at every level.  I’ll do my best to explain, and in return ask you to consider your own role in perpetuating the divide, and how your investments could be redirected and the benefits redistributed.

How effectively are you using your muscle, teeth and bone?

 The preview: Conscious Government Capital

Effective 2014, a May 2012 budget instruction the White House issued to the heads of executive departments and agencies, requires all Federal grant-making agencies increase the role of evidence in their grant-making formulas. The memo suggested three approaches:

  • Encouraging use of evidence in formula grants,
  • Evidence-based grants, and
  • Pay for Success.

These were in addition to a model developed by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) that ranks programs based on evident  returns on investment.

 Wow! Competitive advantage and grants will flow to agencies whose programs demonstrate greater levels of evidence of their effectiveness.  Program providers who can prove their outcomes will get paid for their successes.  This slight change in policy does more to jumpstart accountability within a sector slow to measure itself.  It also energizes and attracts the interest of unusual bedfellows—players in the larger capital markets.

Debating organizational responsibility for the whole of society typically pits private vs. public players’ activities against one another. Each watches and fights the efforts and right of the other to create the future. In the process, advocates arguing for greater checks and balances exclude careful inspection of a third vital force. I’m describing the third leg’s impact, specifically, the  poorly understood effects and poorly coordinated activities supported by charitable donations, well-meaning grants and volunteer contributions.

Writing for The Daily Beast , Ken Stern eloquently shares his observations on the inefficiency of our current philosophy around charitable giving.  Puzzled by  the surety of faith and absence of critique on this third sector’s intermediary role in our lives, he writes:

“The public—and private—investment in the social sector is one of the critical elements of the American social compact, yet it is one of the oddities of public life that each year we renew this investment without ever pausing to ask the same questions that we ask of every other public and private investment: what are we getting in return, is the investment structured correctly, is the money going to the right places?”

The answers reflect different levels of engagement and interaction ranging– from passive to active. The vast charitable landscape and ease with which individuals establish personal private charities further dissipates impact on any single issue.  Consider where your donations flow relative to your top concerns.

Can additional accountability changes revitalize the third sector and elevate its stature sufficiently to offer a significant counterweight to break the deadlock in Washington?

New mechanisms open new opportunities.  How can performance partnership pilots (such as those embedded into Health care reform and now promoted by all Federal agencies) create new paths and alternative realities?  Can these channeled resources provide the necessary fuel and impact to reinvent  health care systems and access, guaranteed quality education,  preserve the environment, resolve energy issues etc?  Of course commitment levels vary and weaken foundations’ abilities to impact and sustain significant changes that contain or alleviate complications.

These problems and their complexity challenge everyone and explain the growing continuum of investment, participation and contributions in this space. Engagement ranges from  Muscle, using influence; Teeth, making your mark; and Bone, establishing a connective, resilient structure.  Which is right for you and your organization?

 Muscle

Historically, the heaviest lifting done to eradicate disease and increase economic livelihoods succeeded through comprehensive coordination.  In Colonial times, governments leveraged their authority to build necessary infrastructure and disproportionately benefit business and economic interests. These changes rippled improvements and improved the lives of the general populations too.

Today, spiraling entitlement program costs and accumulated  tax credits, tariffs and sector supports  produce exclusive benefits difficult to sustain, making everyone ill at ease.  Intricate problems don’t make them impossible to resolve.  Downstream economic benefits often justify providing credits and supports to resource consuming and output producing organizations. But, as Ken Stern observed, increasing social needs now exceed the capacity and political will of government to act alone to meet them.

Ken Stern is not alone in his assessment of what holds back resources, devoted to this sector from realizing greater impact.  In 2011, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that demand for aid from nonprofits increased at a faster pace than philanthropic giving by companies.

“Because of the small growth, many nonprofits aren’t getting the money they need to do their job…”

 The spirit of personal choice permeates the landscape of charitable giving. Gates and Buffet use their muscle, their influence, to secure significant commitments from fellow billionaires by encouraging that they too dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. The Giving Pledge lists the pledging individuals, but does not pool funds or support a particular set of causes or organizations. It only asks individuals to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes or charitable organizations either before or after their death.

Are there clear  benefits using this approach?  It extends charitable activities supported by these donors and the charities reach by introducing much-needed attention and critical dialogue to the merit of these activities.  Stern points to the ever-increasing number of non-profits and specialized, if not duplicitous charities that result. Each carve out a niche and unintentionally work at cross-purposes.

So why did Warren Buffet, known for his prowess in picking great companies that anyone can run, turn over his charitable fortune to Gates to invest? Simply, he empathized with Gates’ action plans that address the absence of good measures of charitable efficacy.  Their charitable interests transcended seeing their  millions merely alleviate pain and suffering  in the manner of many religious charities, whose good work largely continues unquestioned.

Teeth

The concept of Social Impact or making measurable differences quickly captured Gates’ imagination and energy.  Recently, Gates wrote about the value of impact measurement for the WSJ and makes clear that if you aren’t monitoring progress than it’s pretty difficult to make any.

Strategic philanthropy can be defined by dedication personal resources to a singular focused charity, or channeling them to an agreed purpose or outcome that creates real opportunity and situational impact.  Defining the purpose clearly, defining the outcome and agreeing on the measure of success helps every donor make a mark, boost their efficacy and ultimately diminish the problem.

Hunger in America, provides an interesting case in point. Sadly, this problem re-emerged after national awareness generated by the media had it licked in an earlier era. The successful campaign attracted high level politicians’ attention and secured commitments to adapt pre-existing Federal support programs to meet these needs. The result was the Federal Food Stamp program administered by the Department of Agriculture  in  coordination with the farm support programs.  Today, multiple federal public assistance programs exist not from inefficiency but out of a growing understanding of the problem and efforts to target services to specific critical populations, e.g. low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women and new mothers and their infants; distribution of temporary hunger relief through food pantries and the school lunch program as well as households in poverty.

Feeding America, in their online FAQs, document how today, food assistance needs exceed the capability and capacity of  SNAP , Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and the other programs.

In spite of ample effort and dedicated coordination and volunteer efforts, the gap has not closed but grown with the economic downturn. The persistent number of households living with food insecurity lives daily with uncertainty not knowing where their next meal let alone access to basic nutrition will come.

Good news once again, activists have kicked up a media frenzy to draw both volunteers and the interest of politicians to rectify this situation. Learn more at TakePart and the film A place at the table. Will and should government assume leadership to resolve?

 Bone

The coordination and interconnections necessary to move beyond marked progress and end the problem requires much more than charitable resources.  It also reflects the long-term trend the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in July 2011:

“[Increasingly,] companies are zeroing in on social issues that threaten their bottom lines, like people’s ill health, high transportation costs, or diminishing fresh water. They are also focusing on causes that help them tap into new markets, appeal to their customers, and use their employees’ skills.”

Case in point, CSX donated $1 million  to the Future Farmers of America, one of a few key national groups it supports. Tori Kaplan, assistant vice president for corporate social responsibility, explained their desire to attract young people with the skills and interests it needs were participating in FFA.

“We’re hoping to foster relationships with FFA where the students would look at transportation and its connection to agriculture as a viable career,” she says.

The numerous partnerships between Non-governmental organizations often supported by philanthropy, the business sector and the government provide the three legs that create a stable platform for society.  Each leg keeps the other in check and accountable.

These partnerships go beyond what Feeding in America highlights on their site. They depend on investments to rewire the mechanisms that created the problem and create value to attract capital to create more mutual sustainable system. That requires a deeper assessment of  problem inter-dependencies. Desperate people engage in desperate behavior to get their needs met. Reduce if not remove the reasons for their desperation and the resources used to combat them can be used more productively.  Instead of relying on redistributing waste, kindness and surpluses to satisfy unmet needs create greater efficiency, employment and opportunity for understanding and accomplishment.

Leveraging the efficiency and accountability of capital markets offers new hope to create sustainable solutions.  Social impact bonds, or pay for performance success instruments offer such a mechanism to make all parties publicly accountable. The example demonstrated how investing in social services for released offenders that successfully integrate into their communities and find meaningful work at a living wage, produced measurable benefits of increased safety and lower future incarceration costs.

The full circle encompasses economic measures of societal impact, and look beyond the benefits to the target population or social service recipients. It means everyone benefits from the success, not just the immediate clients.  In spite of several programs demonstrating this full complement of returns, it took recent calculation of the benefits and the costs to produce the necessary investment instruments to support their funding. In the UK they call them pay for performance or social impact bonds and now slowly appearing in the US.

 Next?

Regardless of how your corporate charitable activities uses its muscle to invest in community causes and provide valuable volunteers, have you looked for more tangible benefits beyond risk avoidance or raising the positive sign on your public profile.  Maybe it’s time to ratchet up your game. Chances are your employees already sit on boards of numerous non-profits and use their teeth to place their mark and  extending with charitable matches your firm’s resources to mutual benefit.

More interesting opportunities come  when going beyond the marginal resources at your disposal in  corporate foundations.  Why not leverage the full force of the economic assets at your discretion?  The Chronicle of Philanthropy noticed a shift evident in 2011 when corporations appeared to concentrate their support in favor of bigger, higher-profile gifts to fewer organizations.

“in part because of a long-term trend of companies zeroing in on social issues that threaten their bottom lines, like people’s ill health, high transportation costs, or diminishing fresh water. They are also focusing on causes that help them tap into new markets, appeal to their customers, and use their employees’ skills.”

Case in point, Walmart. Over the last several years, Walmart’s amount of charitable cash donations, over $342 million in 2011 topped the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Corporate giving list .  In 2013, they joined the Partnership for a healthier America changing their own business practices  to align their efforts to make healthy food affordable for families.  This is the public private partnership that helped Walmart leverage its supply chain efficiencies and prowess while also gaining toe holds in communities who fought their incursion.  Key opportunities cited by the Washington Post following Michelle Obama’s recent Walmart visit included:

  •  Wal-Mart  opened 86 new stores in “food deserts,” areas where accessibility to affordable healthy foods is limited.
  • Launch of its “Great for You” icon, which will appear on more than 1,300 of its house brands of foods and beverages in U.S. stores, making it easier to identify nutritionally sound choices.
  • Cutting salt and sugar in its house brands and encouraging national brands to do the same.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest food retailer, holds at least one-fifth of the grocery market, according to trade magazine The Packer.

Lots of ideas here, but would love to hear what I may have missed, or other stories that show evidence of more creative innovative approaches to improve the overall system!

 

To win the game, we have to change the game


I can’t imagine the pressure on a CEOs when their organization misses the targets t120918053535-out24-shareholder-value-gallery-horizontalhey set for themselves.  How can they not take the failure personally?  More importantly, how do they turn the fail into opportunity?  Frequently, they publicly declare to the world renewed commitment to their strategy, reassure everyone that  management  knows what it’s doing and asks stakeholders to have a little faith.

A glorious future beats a glorious past.

This past week, Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway released his annual shareholder letter and so did another hedge fund billionaire, Edward Lampert, the Chairman and now Chief executive of Sears Holdings comments.  2012 was tough on both companies.

Buffett reminded shareholders of his long-term management contribution:

“Over the last 48 years (that is, since present management took over), book value has grown from $19 to $114,214, a rate of 19.7% compounded annually.”

Lampert acknowledged his pride in the company associates for their resiliency in 2012 and then expressed the following:

“After reporting poor results for 2011, culminating in a very poor fourth quarter, we declared that we would take significant actions in 2012 to restore confidence in and financial stability to the company, while, at the same time, remaining focused on transforming Sears Holdings and creating long-term value for our shareholders.”

The vast differences between the diverse portfolio holdings of one  make comparisons to a single narrow industry portfolio holding company difficult, but it’s the philosophy of these two successful financiers that caught my attention.  Buffet’s reputation and success remains untarnished as he acknowledges sub par performance, meaning below the returns of the S&P 500.  Likewise, Lampert’s nod from his board to take the CEO reigns indicates their great faith in his judgment.

Both of these leaders inspire others to believe but how much do they expect shareholders to understand?  Rereading both of their letters, a wonderful clarity of mission and dedication to longstanding strategies can’t be missed.

Buffett draws readers attention to three elements that unlock the portfolio’s Intrinsic business value: one qualitative and two quantitative measures–per-share investments and per-share pre-tax earnings from businesses other than insurance and investment.

Lampert talks about creating long-term business value with an interesting description of EBITDA.  He shares an analysis of  value added by closing non-performing stores that reduced investment in non-performing stores but provided upside when the real estate sold.

An initial read shows just how similarly these two financial wizards think.  But who needs inspiration? How will sharing beliefs in these fundamental principles help hold the relative  position?

Which rubber and which road matter

Theory doesn’t always make for good practice and now matter what plans you make, until put into motion it’s impossible to know the results. The best predictors can’t incorporate every possible condition and inevitably some expectations go unrealized.

That’s where belief really counts. Funny, ever wonder why people believe what they believe?  It turns out that believing doesn’t require understanding; but it does color our interpretation.  Make believe, the imaginary is anything but real. Our beliefs and the way we interpret or make meaning of our reality is largely but not exclusively determined by the most recent experience and current context. This is the Halo effect at work which predisposes us to favor what we believe and what we first hear or see.  No experience? Ambiguity gets resolved unconsciously, consistent with context.

The more diverse  and numerous our experiences, the greater the number of differences or nuances in our understanding which results in unpredictable results.

Change the frame or limit the context of shareholder value to  financial expressions like EBITDA will reduce the variance in meaning. Formulas and standard accounting practices assure investors of an equivalence which makes EBITDA meaningful regardless of their depth of understanding, while also increasing the power of their belief in the financial measure to provide great meaning.

But accepting an idea doesn’t mean we believe it. Ever take a test that resulted in a wrong answer?  Perhaps, you asked why your answer was wrong, convinced you had it right.  Maybe your answer didn’t match the expected answer and so the first evaluation was incomplete.  Your answer didn’t make sense to the grader though it was still correct. An equilateral is both a square and a rectangle. Since different experiences lead to different beliefs both generate even greater diversity of understanding.

Big ambiguous ideas like shareholder value may be easy to believe but harder to understand and harder still to set clear, consistent actions into motion.Easy to measure share holder value at a point in time, but CEOs tasked to deliver it going forward need to provide greater clarity, less ambiguous and more specific associations and not risk letting recent experiences or context prove its meaning. What actions does the CEO wish to inspire, what associations does their message need to imply or offer guarantee?

Shares imply ownership and the value suggest material wealth.  For Berkshire Hathaway, a shareholder owns parts of lots of different companies with an assurance based on Buffets statements and reputation that their wealth will grow.  For Sears Holdings? Shareholders own a portion of physical tangible business components that are much harder to guarantee growth.

Align beliefs with understanding

If I yell Fire, everyone reacts almost immediately and reaches the same conclusion–flight.  There’s no visible delay between the declared message and the actions it produces.  The brain wastes no time finding the best match and cues our nervous system and muscles to respond.  No conscious awareness of decision or choice seems at play, move first,  think later. The instantaneous assessment of the environment places Fire in context, and fits a pattern in our memory, and a complete script presents itself making our next moves clear.  We are off following it without questioning its veracity, or applicability. We pay attention to what the script tells us not the ambient information surrounding us, unless of course that information boldly interferes with the expectation found in the script.

Simple question, which scenario came to mind for you?

1. I yell fire when the tinder in the hearth finally catches, and you left the fire pit at the campground to go find matches or more kindling nearby.

2. I’m cooking over a grill and yell Fire when the grease from the chicken has dripped off the foil, landing on the hot coals.

3. I yell fire when I smell something burning and see smoke in great quantities billow around the curtain on the stage in front of us.

I’m betting that your imagination took you to scenario three, the one that represents a scary, fearful situation. Especially since the idea was raised in a wider discussion of shareholder value or returns, a topic that triggers a similar set of automatic reactions depending on the experience or understanding of the listener.

The financial media pundits provide language that makes sense to their readers without appealing to the experience or context of employees or customers.  Our word choices even with the best of intentions don’t guarantee translation of similar expectations and in the case of shareholder value don’t make it easy to make a move without understanding more.

Leaders use of language creates expectations across a diverse set of audiences with vastly different understanding.  To get the people in your organization to produce the necessary EBITDA should the burden of understanding be drilled down to the lowest level of the organization?  Telling them about the challenge or demanding the performance may set the expectation, but leadership needs to do more.  They need to engage in the language and experiences that will trigger the scripts and make it possible for employees to believe their doings and their actions help. I have faith that Lampert is on the task.  It was his words that inspired this post.  His articulation of the convergence of new behaviors made possible by technology supported knowledge, a  complex transformation experience currently shared by many businesses.

Lampert isn’t the only one with an offensive strategy attempting to get out ahead of the curve.  JCPenney, Best Buy and now Barnes & Noble are all experiencing the loss of faith by shareholders that parallels the lost faith of their customers and employees.  As Buffet remarked in his letter, this is not a time for waiting.

“The risks of being out of the game are huge compared to the risks of being in it.”

Lampert’s plans?

“…we will use technology and training to encourage and embrace feedback to improve and make it much more transparent to everyone, thereby increasing accountability at the store and associate level.”

Both of these successful men know what can happen when you yell Fire.  Let’s just hope that the script that gets activated keeps their stakeholders on the same page.  Challenging but not impossible.