What comes after Spreadsheet Capitalism?
Invented in 1979, the humble spreadsheet was the shareholder value revolution’s “killer app”. Now it’s time to make decisions differently — but how?
Today, no major investment decision — in either the private or public sector — is made without a spreadsheet to back it up. That fact should trouble us more than it does. Indeed, it may be one of the biggest reasons why capitalism is in crisis.
As Alex Edmans points out in Grow the Pie, ‘most important outcomes can’t be quantified.’ For example, ‘you might know that an enterprise has an engaged workforce, but not how this information should change cell C23 in your valuation spreadsheet.’ The result, Edmans argues, is that businesses forgo many profitable investments simply because the profitability of the investment is incalculable in advance.
The same is true in the public sector. As Mariana Mazzucato argues in her latest book, Mission Economy, the Apollo programme would never have been undertaken on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis, even though, in the long run, the benefits massively outweighed the costs. Most of the benefits were not only unquantifiable but unforeseeable in advance, whereas the (considerable) costs were comparatively straightforward to predict.
The message of both Edmans’ and Mazzucato’s books is that we — at a business and societal level — are consistently leaving value on the table because of our obsession with being able to calculate that value in advance. ‘Profits come from unpredictable sources,’ Edmans writes, ‘and so a mindset of maximising profits will rarely maximise profits.’ The cult of calculation — enabled by spreadsheets — has crowded out judgement.
The corporate sustainability movement is a child of the era of spreadsheet capitalism and it shows. Enormous effort has been expended trying to build spreadsheets that better reflect social and environmental risks and outcomes, with limited impact on how businesses and markets behave. As Duncan Austin notes, ‘“what gets measured gets managed”… is not a law of the universe, only a catchy slogan.’
So if spreadsheets full of net present value calculations and cost-benefit analyses are not the way to run a business or an economy, what is the alternative?
For Mazzucato, writing about the public sector, the answer is “missions”: governments should set their sights on tangible, time-bound goals — like creating 100 carbon neutral European cities by 2030, or eliminating the “digital divide” by 2025 — and then work back from there. For Edmans, writing about the private sector, the answer is “purpose”: companies should get clear about why — and for whom — they exist and then use that as the basis for decision making. Their focus should be on creating social value, with profit as a by-product.
Mission and purpose aren’t exactly new ideas, so the key is understanding how to operationalise them. Today, mission and purpose statements are often just window dressing. The tell-tale sign is when a supposedly “purpose-driven” organisation still relies on a spreadsheet to justify every major decision. Neither purpose nor social value can be boiled down entirely to numbers, so a spreadsheet is simply the wrong piece of software for the task. Decision-making in a genuinely purpose-driven organisation is about judgement not calculation.
But how to ensure leaders exercise good judgement in the absence of the rigour brought by spreadsheets? Edmans suggests three principles to guide corporate decision making:
- Multiplication: does the social benefit of an activity outweigh the private cost?
- Comparative advantage: does my enterprise deliver more value through this activity than another enterprise targeting the same societal outcome could?
- Materiality: does the activity benefit stakeholders who are material to the enterprise either for business or intrinsic reasons?
That penultimate word — intrinsic — is an important one. Probably the most radical part of Edmans’ framework is the idea that businesses can and should be motivated to care about particular stakeholders for intrinsic, as opposed to purely instrumental, reasons. This is what distinguishes the approach to business he is advocating from previous frameworks such as “Shared Value” or “Enlightened Shareholder Value”, both of which view creating value for stakeholders as a means to an end, rather than an intrinsically worthwhile activity.
This, as Edmans acknowledges, can sound like semantics, but motives matter — and they can be incredibly difficult to alter. Most corporate sustainability professionals are passionate about improving societal outcomes: that’s why they do what they do. But they — we — routinely get trapped into articulating a logic that fits with the shareholder value paradigm: “doing good is good for business.” And then we tinker around in a spreadsheet to show we’re serious.
40 years of decision-making-by-spreadsheet has crowded out intrinsic motivation — and good judgement — in both public and private sector organisations. Fittingly, the damage wrought by this is incalculable. The value-creating investments not made. The positive spillover effects not generated. The innovations not pursued. We will never know the full extent of what we’ve lost.
But we know enough. Our urgent task is to discover anew how to decide, at an organisational and societal level, to do things for reasons other than maximising profits or maximising GDP. And as individuals, we need to (re-)learn how to exercise judgement, rather than relying on calculation — both in making decisions and in justifying them to others. In the process, we might just — according to Mazzucato and Edmans — increase profits and increase GDP. But even if we don’t, it will have been worth it.