This is an inspiring book, and informative. It answers the "what" question convincingly. I missed answers to the "why" questions. Why, for example, are successful visionary companies characterized by their emphasis on ethical standards? There are many possible explanations: the staff of the company are inspired by the ideals and give more to their employer; the companies reap payoffs in the long term from grateful recipients of their honorable deeds; the companies acquire a good reputation which increases sales and hence profits. More interesting, is the question of the logic of ethics in the business game - not even touched by these authors.
According to Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, it does not matter what the company ideology is, as long as it is passionately believed by the management and employees. I find this a dubious claim, and not supported by the data. The ideological frameworks of the companies that were studied are not interchangeable, not for the trivial reason that the ideology of another company happens not to be the one believed by each of them. Boeing is unlikely to spend money on a program to cure river blindness in Africa. Why does Merck do this? Clearly, a pharmaceutical firm does well to invest in a reputation for medical generosity that flows from a passion for making people well? Merck is purchasing precisely the trust that pays-off in the medical market place. Trust reduces transaction costs, and in some cases is almost as good as a monopoly. Boeing, on the other hand, must buy a brand name attached to their dedication to engineering excellence. It does matter what companies are passionate about.
My company operates on the Internet. Our pledge includes the words: "The tragedy of the commons is the propensity of users to take more from the commons than they give. We undertake to contribute more to the commons than we take. Our presence shall make the Internet safer, more useful and greater fun." Why is this a suitable ideology for our company? The answer is not that this is one we happen to believe in, and feel passionate about - although we do. Rather, this ideology is strategically fitting. We enhance to our brand name, and therefore the value of our software, by adding our reputation to the web applications we write.
In one of our daughter businesses we are a broker of information from merchants to consumer (information about products that are available) and from consumer to merchant (we generate real time demand curves for a large range of commodities). We have pledged not to become a trader. Why? In ethical terms, we should not be a trader because our insider information would give rise to conflict of interest. The trust that we gain by not being a trader, and hence remaining a disinterested supplier of market information, enables us to broker Coasian agreements with reduced transaction costs between the parties on the Internet. The advantage is large. It is on the Internet commons that trust is scarce. We are able to purchase this by foregoing some potentially profitable trades, and that pays us more in the long term in our role as an information service provider.
Our ideology was designed to give us the greatest possible strategic advantage in our markets. That is not to say we do not believe in our ideals, but that the nature of our ideology is important. It does matter what we believe. It matters what you believe, and it matters that you understand that it matters.
I strongly recommend "The Modern Firm" by Roberts. Read this alongside "Built to Last". Roberts is a harder read, but he gets under the logic of corporate dynamics better than Collins and Porras. Because "Built to Last" is characterized by an ubiquitous analytical paucity, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras' interpretations of their data are not always correct. That is a pity. Their findings are exciting, inspiring even, and the book despite its limitations is a good read.