Importance of Dissent: “The fool’s role is to speak truth to power…”

Interview with Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, of the Smurfitt Business School at UCD. He identifies three things to learn from the crisis: articulating the relationship between business and the wider society it operates within; Ireland’s overdependence on retail and construction and the need to build a more export led economy; and third the importance of dissent.

Professor Ó hÓgartaigh’s presentation on the role of dissent is, at base, about understanding the utility of the fool within business… Here’s some of the core of his argument in favour of positive disclosure, in a short series of aphorisms:

  • The fool says disclosure of bad news is a good thing . . .
  • Conundrum: We only hear about the whistleblower when it goes bad . . .
  • Conundrum: We don’t hear about the whistleblowers who have been properly treated . . .

His argument to business (which might be transliterated to politics or the business of government), is to drive straight past the minimal demands of the regulator and set higher targets for disclosure:

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 20.31.03

That figure for disclosure through litigation is surprisingly low, until you begin realise that the problem is much wider than the defaulting organisation. Complicity in a broader culture of secrecy which seeks to keep or press mistakes and failing corporate performances out of the public domain:

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 20.33.36

His conclusion is, broadly, that the odds are stacked against whistleblowers when in fact it is in the company’s best interests to encourage early warnings of failure:

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 21.19.43

Some of this may seem counterintuitive, particularly when attempting to sell it to politicians or civil servants. But the new societal architecture is shifting from default closed to default open. Of course that does not mean getting everything out there.

But the early discovery of weaknesses means that properly handled, whistle-blowing could become an business opening rather the final closing of a career…

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