Professor Thomas Clarke, of UTS Sydney, opened the corporate governance track of the European Academy of Management 2015 conference by discussing both the history and the future of board research. In so doing, he asked the question as to whether boards and board research were on the cusp of a paradigm shift.
Looking back 83 years, Clarke called on the memory of Berle and Means, and their oft-cited work that explored the separation of ownership and control. Berle and Mean envisaged a collective and collaborative approach (between shareholders, boards and managers) to the achievement of various business goals. The article has been accorded seminal status by many researchers, yet it has been largely usurped in more recent times by agency theory (one of the most debilitating ideologies of moderns time, according to Clarke), a contribution that conceives an individual and separatist view where shareholder primacy is the primary (even only) goal.
In looking ahead, Clarke asserted that new a model is required because the world is on the cusp of a massive disruption caused by climate change. A continuation of the extant approaches will simply accelerate the demise of many economies. In calling for a zero-emission post-carbon economy, Clarke said that boards of directors have a key role to play. However, they need to be farsighted, determined and courageous. He called out Chandler (1967) and Stout (2012) as highly influential thinkers in this regard, and contrasted their theses with that of the more commonly cited Jensen and Meckling (1976) (who promoted agency theory).
The challenge for boards in the future is to return to the ideas of Berle and Means, for history suggests that their ideas were largely correct. Whereas the 19th Century was characterised by production and the 20th Century by marketing and consumption; the 21st Century will, more than likely be characterised by sustainability. Boards need to embrace this if they are to oversee the fundamental changes needed to make the transition. Whether boards will be prepared to look inwards, to re-invent themselves and the way they work is the first challenge to be surmounted. Clarke's thesis suggests that failure to act on this initial point may consign boards and the very companies they oversee to the very place they wish to avoid—the scrapheap.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.