Thursday, 13 October 2016

Wells Fargo farrago

The unfolding scandal at US bank Wells Fargo, one of the most historic organizations in the USA, is an interesting illustration of the perils of managerial target-setting (see p. 30 of book). What seems to have happened is that sales staff were under such pressure to meet sales targets that they simply invented new bank and credit card accounts – and not just here and there: as many as two million bogus accounts were created.

But this story is also interesting in showing that such perverse incentives are not just an arcane matter of organizational theory. The scandal led to the company having to pay out on a $185 million lawsuit, and the resignation this week of its Chairman and CEO, John Stumpf. And it shows the weakness of corporate whistle blower legislation.

Target setting lies at the heart of many organizational failures and scandals in recent years, whether that be the British NHS or mortgage lenders’ payment protection policies. There is little sign that the lessons of these have been learned. A huge scandal in waiting is the UK deregulation of pensions, which allows people to draw down and spend or invest their pension pot on the advice of salespeople working, of course, to sales targets. Watch this space for what will undoubtedly result in the coming years: pensioners in poverty because they have blown their savings under the paradoxical dogma of 'choice'.

Targets encapsulate the core issue of formal and substantive rationality in organizations (pp. 21-25) because they prioritise the former over the latter. Formal rationality valorises target setting as a means of control; substantive rationality valorises ethical conduct. The irony is that the former is seen as hard-headed business logic whilst the latter is seen as fluffy ethical stuff but, as Wells Fargo shows, that is a false logic. Had Wells Fargo been more substantively rational, it would not face its current problems.

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