The fourth dilemma: an ethics for the fourth estate?

by Philip Boxer
The need for asymmetric leadership arises when an enterprise must be dynamically responsive to its clients one-by-one in the way it supports a client’s experience. Examples would be providing a weather forecast for a particular operational mission, the health care of a patient with an ongoing condition, supporting a bank’s management of its capital adequacy within changing regulatory constraints, or providing multiple versions of a print newspaper for different readerships: {weather; healthcare; capital adequacy; news}.

A consequence is the need to move towards privileging the demands of a horizontal relationship to a singular demand, even though while remaining subject to constraints imposed by vertical accountability relationships. I have referred to this approach to governance elsewhere as an East-West dominant approach. In the example cases, this involves being able to dynamically align behaviors {forecasting; orchestrations of care pathways; risk exposure; print version} to the singular demand {mission profile;  patient’s condition; risk situation; community of interest}.  Inherent to this approach is the notion that the client’s demand is asymmetric to the supplier’s thinking, so that there is always a value deficit – a ‘more’ still to be addressed {the forecast is never wholly accurate; the condition is never fully understood; the information about the credit risk is always imperfect; the news always leaves the community of interest with unanswered questions}.

To think through what are the distinguishing characteristics of the ecosystem of organisations necessary to sustaining these forms of dynamic alignment, a fundamental distinction has to be made between the stratification needed to sustain responses to symmetric as distinct from asymmetric forms of demand. While the former strata must deliver economies of scale and scope, the latter strata must deliver economies of alignment. These strata are shown in the following in terms of strata 1-4 supporting symmetrically-defined market segments, and strata 5-6 addressing the orchestration and synchronisation of responses to asymmetric demands one-by-one:[1]

The squiggly line marks a fundamental tension between the supply-side orientation of maximising the value to be derived from ‘possible behaviors’ through creating economies of scale and scope (creating as much value as possible for the supplier without jeopardising the customer relationship); and the demand-side orientation of minimising the client’s value deficit through creating economies of alignment (creating as much value as possible for the client without jeopardising the sustainability of the supplier). Each ‘box’ represents a matrix. The relationships between these matrices reflect three asymmetries that have to be managed in bringing the supply-side into relation with the demand-side, depending on the nature of the relationship that suppliers take up to clients’ demands (and how much is left to clients):

  • 1st asymmetry: the technology (1) is not the product (2)
  • 2nd asymmetry: the business (3) is not the solution (4)
  • 3rd asymmetry: the client’s demand (5) is not the client’s experience (6)

Viewed from the perspective of an individual client, a business focused on minimising the client’s value deficit can never hope to provide all the supply-side solutions that have to be orchestrated and synchronised with the client’s situation – it takes an ecosystem of suppliers. A fourth asymmetry emerges, therefore, to the extent that the value deficit is to be minimised.[2] In the examples these would be the domains in which there was effective know-how capable of {forecasting in a dynamic complex adaptive weather system; intervening on the body’s dis-ease; analysing the dynamic interactions between a business model and its environments; editorialising content in relation to particular readers’ interests}.  This fourth asymmetry is that

  • what the client experiences is never all of what the client wants

Holding this fourth asymmetry[3] means empowering the edges of the organisation where this asymmetry is encountered.[4] This brings us to the question(ing) of an ethics for the fourth estate.

The fourth dilemma facing the fourth estate
Consider the fourth of our case examples.  Reporters are despatched into the field to assemble material that can generate news stories. These are orchestrated within an editorial narrative to be read by different communities of interest:

The fourth asymmetry is that whatever actually gets read is never the whole story – a gap is always left. So does the fourth estate pursue the gaps, or does it make do with what it can easily find from existing sources? This is the ethical question for the fourth estate – some would say its raison d’être in a democracy.  Returning to our examples, an ethical challenge can be identified in each case: {forecasting when lives are at stake; early diagnosis greatly improving future quality of life; the value is in enabling the client to sustain the indirect benefits of the investment; a lack of real understanding destroys the ability of citizens to hold others accountable}.

[1] These strata are explored in more detail in a series of postings linked to by the summary: So you say you want to put your clients first… These matrices represent possible behaviors. As is described in these postings, however, the actual behaviors are determined by ‘organisation’ imposed by people. In the diagram below, this organisation, which is constraining behavior in matrices 1-6, is shown as the ‘B’ matrices. The oval matrices represent the limiting behaviors (0) and dimensions of deficit (7):
Note how ‘possible behaviors’ are thus made subject to vertical accountabilities, while the experience of value deficits are subject to the way behaviors are horizontally linked to situation.  Giving priority to value deficits therefore involves some degree of surrendering sovereignty in the way vertical accountability is imposed.
[2] This means putting the ‘domain of relevance’ into question, questioning the nature of the private good being served by the relationship. See the concept of strategy ceiling.
[3] The organisation focused on this fourth asymmetry must adopt a tripartite approach to leadership, capable of holding this inevitable tensions between minimising the value deficit while still remaining a sustainable organisation:
[4] The concept of rings and wedges provides a way of thinking about how the supply-side and demand-side are held in relation to each other. The tripartite approach, taken in the example below from work on leadership qualities, involves leadership that can balance the vertical constraints of operational leadership with the horizontal outcomes demanded by Front-Line leadership:

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