Friday, December 04, 2009

lack of corporate transparency creates perverse incentives

The present hot topic for everyone is how best to curb the corporate and financial excesses and risky behaviour that lead most of the world's economies into the worst recession since the Great Depression. However, the '800 pound gorilla' in the room that this debate neglects is the lack of transparency that senior executives have over their operations and initiatives, and the perverse incentives this creates.

In the English-speaking world, key policymakers and the public at large have taken up the mantle of improving corporate governance, more specifically limiting corporate remuneration, as a way to check senior executives' and bankers' appetite for risky, even illegal, short-term profit maximising that can inject dangerous volatility into financial systems and markets.

In Australia, APRA recently proposed new executive compensation guidelines, and the ASX Corporate Governance Council is considering issuing guidelines that would require ASX-listed companies to maintain records of their briefings with analysts, provide advance notice and make them more widely accessible to provide for the more equal and fair dissemination of information.

In the UK, a recently published government-commissioned report on corporate governance by Morgan Stanley senior adviser David Walker recommends that banker pay be awarded on a long-term basis and would subject banker bonus payments to close public scrutiny. In the US, there is a compensation 'czar' tasked by the US Treasury to reign in senior executive compensation at companies that received government bailout funds.

I can see and appreciate the logic in addressing the perverse incentives that currently reside within executive and banker compensation structures. But, this is only one side of the equation. The other side involves the fact that senior executives within many organisations can not clearly and accurately identify, measure, and manage their internal costs and value-creation activities.

Unfortunately, in many instances, senior management is making important strategic and investment decisions based on experience, 'gut feels', and/or short-term, known measures, such stock price and personal compensation targets - which in the US, especially, normally consists of stock and option grants. Arguably, this inability to identify, measure and manage organisational costs and benefits encourages senior management to focus more on more short-term, tangible performance metrics (i.e., personal remuneration targets) at the expense of longer-term initiatives whose benefits are at best uncertain.

At mbh, we regularly provide technology solutions and consulting services to organisations that lack the internal processes and technology for clear assessment of operational costs and the value potential of initiatives. We developed our web-based, enterprise project portfolio management software solution, UniPhi, to address what we see as an alarming lack of operational and strategic transparency within most organisations.

We believe that any organisation with 100 or more people should adopt an enterprise-level project portfolio management system to provide greater transparency of operational costs and the initiatives most likely to add, or destroy, value. By equipping senior executives with this knowledge, they will be more inclined to behave in the interests of the organisation, because they'll have a better understanding of what is really happening and can take appropriate steps.

In addition, this greater transparency allows for better accountability, since the information resides within the project portfolio management system for the entire organisation to see. This should dramatically lessen management's incentives to engage in short-term, self-serving, and possibly illegal, activities, since the possibility of disclosure is heightened.

A project portfolio management system also assists the Board of Directors in carrying out their oversight duties, given they will have a much better grasp of what is occurring within an organisation at the strategic and operational levels. This system also assists in accurate public financial reporting, since everyone across the organisation will be working from the same set of financial data.

For many organisations, this increased transparency may fell like an uncomfortable 'shock' to the system. However, it is much more preferable than having politicians manage your organisation after some catastophe. Just ask Bank of America, who is paying back its bailout funds early, because it believes the US Treasury's executive compensation restrictions prevent it from attracting a qualified successor to its outgoing CEO.

Enterprise project portfolio management may not be the proverbial 'silver bullet' for the corporate governance problem, but it definitely enhances internal corporate transparency, and thus accountability, which is a step in the right direction.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

By that I mean latching on to this or that latest, most innovative idea that some self styled money making guru has put out in the hope it’ll go viral and make them a lot of money off the backs of all the headless chickens who will follow them blindly down a blind alley. Its a shame but a truism nonetheless that people will follow where someone they see as an expert leads. Even if they lead them to certain disaster, which is what most of the gurus tend to do to their flocks.
The trick is to recognize a shadow when you see it!