On the Church’s Failure to Provide a Theological Informed Conception of Good Business

On the Church’s Failure to Provide a Theological Informed Conception of Good Business

Posted on:Apr 01 2010
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We live mainly by forms and patterns and if the forms are bad, we live badly’ . So warns Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize winning storyteller whose comments might well be reprised for a critique of entrepreneurship. Indeed, one need only substitute the word ‘live” for the word “venture”: ‘We venture mainly by forms and patterns and if the forms are bad, we venture badly’.

Clearly, there are multiple cases, particularly in the recent economic turmoil, wherein entrepreneurs have ‘ventured badly’ (both in matters of integrity and effectiveness). And while examples from Wall Street abound, one may note a more intriguing example by looking further, much further, east.

Samalinga Raju, the Founder and Chairman of Satyam Computer Services, has been acclaimed for his business acumen. In 2007, Raju was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young. In 2008 he was honored with a global award for ethics by the London-based World Council on Corporate Governance. According to the New York Times, Satyam rapidly expanded from ‘a handful of employees into back-office giant with a work force of 53,000 and operations in 66 countries’ .

But despite its hyper-growth and wide acclaim, something was fundamentally wrong with Raju’s well-respected enterprise. On January 7, 2009, Raju admitted that ‘50.4 billion rupees, or $1.04 billion, of the 53.6 billion rupees in cash and bank loans the company listed as assets for its second quarter… were nonexistent’. Moreover, revenue for the quarter was 20 percent lower than the 27 billion rupees report, and the company’s operating margin was a fraction of what it declared’ (just 3 percent) .

Raju’s problems might be attributed to a simple, yet dire, lapse in ethics, but this would miss the deeper point: that the impetus for this violation of trust was a failure in the operation, perhaps even the conception of the business. In his own words, ‘What started as a marginal gap between actual operating profit and the one reflected in the books of accounts continued to grow over the years,’ Raju described the situation with a poignant metaphor. ‘It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten.’

Despite an MBA from Ohio University, and his status as a Harvard Business School Alumnus, Samalinga Raju was devoured by the tiger he created. And if such failures are common in the world of enterprise, one might reasonably expect the fault to lie, at least to some degree, with the entrepreneur who patently ignores the proper ‘forms and patterns’ of good business. But this charge presumes that Raju was adequately schooled in such concepts.

Here, the Church might enter this dialog, arguing that a totally secular conception of business is inadequate, and that theology, at its most fundamental level, shapes our ‘forms and patterns’ and thus these failures could be due, at least in part, to the entrepreneur’s neglect or ignorance of a (readily available) theologically informed conception of the ‘good business’. But this promising claim cannot be substantiated, for a detailed survey of the church’s work in this area yields a surprising, even shocking scarcity – thus far, the entrepreneur has been left to fend for himself.

1. Walllace Stegner, W., When the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Random House, New York, 1992.
2. While a formal definition of the entrepreneur will be offered later in this work, it is enough to say that the entrepreneur is focused on the creation of business and…
3. New York Times Digital: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/08/business/worldbusiness/08satyam.html
4. New York Times Digital: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/08/business/worldbusiness/08satyam.html
5. New York Times Digital: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/08/business/worldbusiness/08satyam.html
6. I use the word secular here in the generally accepted sense, though I object on theological grounds to the traditional ‘sacred/secular divide’.

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