Modern slaves

After writing Culture Shock I went on a bit into a bit of a sofa-slouching-brain-resting phase: bought a PS3, developed a bad habit around Battlefield 3, and stopped reading business books.

I’m sort of still half in that phase. Still can’t get my head back into business books, for example.

Good things came of this slovenly phase. I learned a lot from getting back into video games and ended up writing this piece for Wired UK: ‘Modern business is a video game: a bad one’.

I’ve also been bingeing on the Game of Thrones books. Basically ‘fantasy’ Lord of the Rings-esque series, describing the rise and fall of elite families and their characters in a mythical world. Brilliant, easy reading for a geek like me.

(Sorry for the long intro here – I’m winding up to something interesting, I think…)

All of which is a long way of saying that I’ve been spending an hour or so a night in bed immersed in stories of a feudal world, with the hierarchies of old – from Kings and Queens down to filthy poor peasants and slaves.

At the same time, consolidation in the social media and social business sectors has continued. Many of our peers have now sold their businesses to bigger companies, all part of that natural ecosystem of business, where the entrepreneurs reach the end of their natural phase, want to move on to the next thing, and where incumbents want to buy in some of the sizzly new stuff. That’s all good: I’ve been really happy seeing people I like achieve their goals and more and more I can see the sense in this cycle.

In my head these two things have begun to relate: the fortunes of the Lords and Ladies of a fictional world and the accomplishments of entrepreneurs in my world.

And for some reason I’ve started to get this idea that most people are modern slaves, at work. Or at least, disempowered and mistreated peasants. (I know many people aren’t, but this is a dramatisation, mkay!?).

If we pretend that most people are ‘modern slaves’ at work, toiling away to produce the lion’s share of rewards for a small royal elite (shareholders and senior management), when it is in fact their work that creates the rewards, then I can’t stop thinking about employee ownership as the only way forward.

In fact, I’ll go further: I believe that within 15 years, all businesses will have a significant proportion of employee ownership (let’s say more than 25%). That’s probably wrong – if it were to happen, would probably be the greatest shift of wealth ever in the history of the world or something. But it’s just what I feel intuitively – no science included.

Entrepreneurs deserve a premium for taking risk and the act of creation and early growth. I feel that strongly, personally. And shareholders deserve a reward for their risk and investment. But it feels too much, too far skewed at the moment, to me.

I am conscious that this creates a dangerous expectation for me as an entrepreneur. Personally, despite what I’m saying I would like to do a traditional ‘exit’ at some point. I think it would be interesting, exciting, and a nice lump sum would be useful too. As for NixonMcInnes (where I don’t think that’s likely), I personally think that increasing the employee ownership from 5 of us (25%) to 90%-100% would be a brilliant outcome. So what I am saying isn’t free from hypocrisy, expectation-setting or whatever: I’m talking the talk – it remains to be seen if I (and others) can walk it.

But yes. There it is. When the millions go to the few founders and executives, and the rest of the organisation usually resembles a pyramid, with most people earning not very much at all, have we really come very far in the past thousand years? Outliers like John Lewis and other-brilliant-companies-owned-by-their-staff are just that – outliers, quirks. Isn’t that a bit weird?

Aren’t most people just modern slaves, when they are toiling for others?

And won’t that necessarily change as things are becoming more transparent, people are better connected, work tools are lower cost and more accessible, and more of us in the UK work in knowledge work where the product is the people?

I think so. That’s why this topic is in my book, and why we have Margaret Elliott speaking at Meaning 2012 about her experiences creating and scaling up successful employee-owned businesses here in the UK.

But now I believe in this even more – more than when I wrote Culture Shock, more than when I curated the original speakers for Meaning. Ownership belongs here, where it happens, not somewhere else – best of all, in the hands of the people doing it. In time, this will be irresistable.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Modern slaves

  1. “Slave” is a very emotive word, but possibly useful here. People are paid for their work when they are employed and can leave any time they want – or rather when they can bring themselves to. That’s not slavery…

    Many people are slaves, or feel like them, because they don’t feel free to leave or change their circumstances. Fear and uncertainty make their chains, as it were.

    It does sound like slavery when a job dominates someone’s life too much, when they don’t have other interests, when family and health suffer and when they don’t feel happy.

    Maybe the absence of happiness means someone is in a slave-like relationship with their job.

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