Friday, October 17, 2014

The paradox of capitalism

I read articles so fast that I tend to skip important things -- this paragraph by Laura Cassiday in this week's C&EN is one of them. Thanks to one of the ACS' innumerable e-mail newsletters, it was put in front of my face again: 
Who says big companies are cold, heartless behemoths, where employees are numbers and every decision is based on the bottom line? The three companies highlighted in this year’s C&EN profile of top companies for chemists are out to dispel this perception. Although large, these companies foster collaboration and the building of communities within the larger corporate community, making every employee feel like a valued member of a team striving for a common goal. The companies recognize that employees are more than just their job titles, giving them the flexibility to fulfill personal as well as professional obligations.
I understand what Ms. Cassiday is saying: that companies that provide flexibility to employees to fulfill personal obligations are worth of attention and praise.

But! Ultimately, all three of the companies in the article (Genentech, Novo Nordisk, and AstraZeneca) are publicly-traded companies and at the end of the day, the big decisions that affect people (who to hire, who to fire) are all based on the bottom line. It's not a perception -- it's a reality.

That is one of the strange paradoxes of the modern economy: the biggest, largest companies are the ones that typically pay the best, offer the most lavish benefits and do well at making people feel like "a team." Yet, they are the ones that are most likely to conduct mass layoffs in order to satisfy their shareholders. Capitalism - it contains multitudes. 


  1. I am not sure what you mean by suggesting large organizations do well at making people feel like "a team" as my experience has been the opposite, where indeed often more a number than an individual, and although you may work on a project team with other groups there is much more siloing with departmental rivalries/politics to deal with and your contribution get muted. I guess there are teams in sports, perhaps college level mostly, where typically if are successful its the Coaches and Management will receive the lion's share of credit and rewards rather than the players and such also tends to happen to a greater degree as get bigger. Of course commonly larger companies have more lavish site Summer and Christmas Parties which are often quite nice. I have a number of t-shirts and other nick-nacks from company events or Sales & Marketing excess conference give-a-ways. These things probably create a bigger illusion of team spirit than the reality for most the people working in labs and plants.

  2. I know a guy who used to work at Genentech. He told me that it was way better before it went public, good pay, good people, and high level of creative energy. After that, just another corporation and massive layoffs. He left before the environment becomes too unbearable..

  3. Long term strategic thinking is being cut down and thrown out in sector after sector. Aspiring execs are encouraged to be 'agile' and a CV full of changes of role is now seen as a positive thing. Initiating and driving change are seen as key qualities - staying around to finish the job, not so much. Fostering real, risk-taking innovation takes too much time for these people so they would rather cut jobs and play it safe. Where we do see real long term thinking it is completely bound up in the cult of personality around a single senior leader (e.g. Steve Jobs at Apple) and quickly begins to unravel as that leader either loses control or disappears (just look at the completely incremental and un-noteworthiness of Apple's latest offerings in the market compared to its earlier game-changers).

    Bottom-line is all that matters, it is hard-wired into the DNA of a post-globalisation business. In order to succeed in that environment you need to realise that and try and manoeuvre yourself to be on 'trend' at any moment in time. Of course this is a complete anathema to any sort of career reliant on real technical expertise such as chemistry, unless you are willing to upsticks and move state, country, continent every few years to follow the jobs.

    That is the reality of modern corporate life.

    PS I like to use Apple as an example of negative behaviours as their virtues are rammed down my throat everyday by said aspiring execs.