The social lives of corporations

The social lives of corporations

We get the services and products and, if we pay attention, we learn for sure which company offers them. We read newspaper and magazine stories, watch TV programmes and ads and so names of corporations, a sense of what is being said about them, what they do and what they are like, coalesce in a galaxy of references, inchoate, nebulous agglomerations of impressions, punctuated by bright clear spots, the mega stars of the corporate world.

Some of the media coverage is distinctly critical and it may be that corporations as pariahs and failures, when they have breached our trust, when they have committed some particularly egregious act of deception or negligence make an even stronger mark on our mental world, albeit a negative one.

Inquisitive and purposeful, we could also search out and scrutinize company annual accounts, reports and press releases, check out scholarly analyses or visit industry fairs. Many of us work for them, or know people who do.

In all of these ways, corporations are part of our everyday life, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes ignored, but inextricably, irrevocably part of how we live and get things done.

For the interested outsider, there is, I learned, another, more intimate and direct occasion when corporations actively, pointedly tell stories about themselves, trying to connect with industry peers, clients, and the public at large.

In the past few years some of the larger corporations, especially in leading sectors such as information technology, have started to organize showcase events and conferences, often complimentary. We are invited on their turf, to listen to presentations about their values and what they have to offer, to query and engage, to try out products and witness demonstrations.  Prominent clients and sponsors weigh in, explaining how they have been able to overcome obstacles and resolve problems using a particular technological solution on offer.


Without a doubt, there is a clear commercial rationale behind this. Prospective clients need to be identified, courted and convinced. Bringing many of them together in dignified, luxurious surroundings combines efficiently requirements of scale and purposeful business development with the gentler arts of generous hospitality and the cultivation of relationships.


For the social scientist, the journalist, the curious citizen these are also occasions when we can ascertain clearly, distinctly, from close quarters and without unnecessary mediation, just how particular corporations want to see themselves and want us to see them. Of course, as with any social interaction, but even more so, these are staged events, with a controlled and pre-approved mise-en-scène, smooth surfaces and rehearsed choreography. And yet. On such occasions the actual people who make up a corporation, often very senior executives and key decision makers are present in rooms that for a time can be places of significant, genuine encounter. If not all questions are likely to be answered, they can at least be asked.


There seems to be a new kind of necessity at work behind such efforts to reach out and, I’ve heard it said a few times, democratize. Successful platforms draw into their space millions of participants, generating network effects through interaction and exchange. Customer relations systems now aspire to immediacy, a fluidity of service between channels of delivery that requires access to our digital footprint and trust. A certain lowering of barriers, favouring horizontal over hierarchical relationships inside the corporation and outside it seems to be the result. There seems to be an imperative of consistency between the character and features of the new digitized products and services and the corporations’ manner of public engagement.

What we make of this moment of necessity, when democracy is suddenly part of what corporations say they want, is up to us. Critically, these are occasions when we are being informed. We know in general that massive technological change is under way, a veritable (fourth) industrial revolution. At such gatherings we may glimpse at where and how digital tentacles are about penetrate, transform, reset the terms of our work and consumption patterns.

Astute about the need to create quality relationships with their customers, cutting edge companies are responding to the new competitive forces by striving to create, as they say, amazing micro-moments of magic-like delivery of service in order to keep our loyalty. Pleasantries and politeness can be raised to a new level: e-mail birthday greetings from the bank and e-mail messages of apology for an unexpected delay from the airline become routine, for instance. What were once exceptional or emergency interventions, requiring long deliberation and planning might now be achieved instantaneously, from making payments to processing loan applications, accessing funds while travelling abroad or coping with uneven network reception for the mobile phone or broadband.


Patchily, for now, but clearly going in this direction, delivery of public services is also becoming, as they say, agile. Some of it is for the better: surely there are no complaints that the DVLA can renew a driver’s license in minutes, rather than weeks for someone who chooses a digital service. In an even more sensitive area, from this year, it will be possible to renew your passport on line too.

Health prevention solutions are increasingly within reach, several facilitated by the NHS. Along with providing 24/7 access to online patient records, its website invites us to join Change4Life and download an app to help monitor sugar consumption, to help ‘eat well, move more and live longer’.

New sensors can gather more granular data and sophisticated analytics provide better mapping of patient flows and use of space, more flexible design, closer monitoring of treatment plans at lower cost. More effective use of clinical staff, through e-rostering, is also a possibility, if the NHS can develop a national people strategy.

In the UK, over 600 individual departmental and other public sector websites will be brought on the same platform, shaped by common standards for working online. And, more fundamentally, once platforms become all-encompassing, constant iteration of different versions of services will become the norm, structuring work in cycles rather than slow moving sequences. Policy-making will become service design.

And we have had glimpses of what this may entail for workers inside companies, too. To give consumers smooth and pleasant experiences, at cost, the information held within organisations is aggregated and processed by software that can also collect information about how workers at their desktops perform their tasks. The slick webpages we use to make purchases online are not so different from the look of personalised dashboards that workers access, monitor and process in order to serve our needs. And for better or worse the digital records made of our actions are not so different from the records made of workers’ productivity or accuracy. As information and analytics capabilities are stored in the cloud, the point of access, whether the workstation is at the company offices, at home, in a café or on the move, will cease to matter as workers will be able to interact and co-operate with little (technological) friction.

Or so we are being told. Are we listening? Are we forewarned and thus forearmed? One thing is for sure, there are no prizes for not paying attention.