Outsourcing Corporateness

Corporations have decided that being corporate is no longer a core competency. They are doing what corporations always do with categories of work that are deemed non-core — they are outsourcing. Corporations are buying their corporateness from outside suppliers.

Think of all the things that make a corporation feel like a corporation. These are the things that let you know that you are in a space controlled by a big, powerful, stable entity, that means something in the world.

That projection of power and stability is now entirely a facade if all of the signs are being bought from outside the company. I’m talking about things like the ones below, just to pull a list from thin air. In today’s large business these are expected to be treated as expense line items and bought from the lowest qualified bid.

Half a lifetime ago, most big, old businesses owned their own buildings and manufactured their own products in the own factories. We got used to the idea of the company that rents its offices and hires factories anywhere in the world to make the products it sells, but today’s outsourced corporation goes far beyond that.

Consider the pop-up morale-building event, a well-known contrivance of modern corporate life. If the company you work for announces a surprise ice cream truck in the parking lot one afternoon, you probably knew that the company did not make the ice cream or drive the truck, but is something else to find out that a morale consultant in another city recommended the ice cream event and even decided on the day and hired the truck. All your company did is write the check.

THis is not a new trend, but even among those who are aware of the trend, it can be a surprise to see how far it has gone. The corporate veneer has been getting thinner and the corporate structure more hollow for years. If people are noticing now it may be because of intentional hollowness of business incubator work sites and WeWork. The idea of these workplaces is that anyone who can pay the rent from month to month can work in a corporate office environment. WeWork has made a name for itself as the thinnest corporation of all, doing almost no business in its own right but providing the corporate office space for hundreds of companies, many of which are too small or almost too small to be corporations themselves.

Cloud services are another trend bringing the thinning corporation into the headlines. Already, a business did not need to design or operate its own web site, and cloud services take this idea a step further. Now a corporation does not need to have its own data center. All the data can be in the cloud. The data is still physically located somewhere, but no one needs to know where from one minute to the next.

So what is a corporation at its heart if virtually its entire identity and operations are purchased from outside? It’s a question to ponder, but the answers may be more unsettling than just realizing that a corporation’s middle managers spent only five minutes planning the latest morale-building event.

Anyone who has enough money to spend can create the appearance of a corporation in a matter of a few weeks, just by hiring the same providers that all the other corporations hire. As long as this is the case, then the heart of the corporation really is the money that makes that happen. The corporation is edging closer and closer to being a pure exercise of money as power to control others.

It is a trend that is leading to an inevitable breaking point. I am not sure where the fracture will appear first, but some kind of breakdown is inevitable just because of the inefficiencies of the corporate way of working. The otherwise intolerable obstacles of the corporate environment are made tolerable because the corporate style is an expression of power, which is supposed to include positive attributes of power such as protection and stability. But now the expression is hollow and the stability it implies is a con. When everything is rented, it can all be shut down in a day. We have seen this happen again and again. It is not always the whole company shutting down, but the impacts are the same at the individual level when departments are closed and workers arrive at the office to learn that their jobs have been eliminated. The headlines are no longer shocking. A cultural awareness of the corporate facade is starting to develop.

Facades tend to get thinner and smaller anyway. The non-functional parts of the corporate facade will decline faster as workers find more ways to work around them. Eventually the corporate facade may be reduced to little more than a digital brochure.

Corporations in many small ways have to decide between empowering workers to work productively and keeping the corporate facade intact by forcing everyone to work inside the productivity disaster that is the corporate box. Productivity is ultimately the source of credibility, so if corporations choose the latter route, there may come a point where corporateness collapses under its own weight and loses its credibility.

There are hints of this already. Just tell people the size of the company you work for and throw in some complaints about how hard it is to get anything done and you will get instant sympathy from someone in the room. It is a short step, in cultural terms, from sympathy to pity.

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