This is the third in a three-part blog that looks at some of the wider issues prompted by the problems facing Tata steel. The first part considered the relative importance of maintaining the on-shore capability for certain industries and the second part considered the risks of relying on reason to govern the market.
In this final article I want to consider the area that fails to conform to the rational, economical person – human behaviour and the part is has played in the manufacturer of British steel. Modern steel making has been around since the 17th century and in that period the world has seen enormous and accelerating changes. The industrial revolution in the 19th century which transformed Britain was followed by rapid development in computer technologies, communication, and digital technologies which have seen the world become globalised and interconnected.
The ability in the 19th Century to have an autarkical economy that is totally self-reliant and insulated from the rest of the world is now just a false fantasy pursued by North Korea. The steel industry in this country might be seen as a victim of globalisation as cheaper labour in Asia has seen costs fall there relative to costs in Europe. Keeping ahead, or at least at a pace with technological change is an enormous challenge for the corporate and public sector but these dizzying changes shouldn’t blind us to the constants.
One of those constants is that of human behaviour. I’m sure if you were in a community 100, 1000 or 10,000 years ago you would have encountered altruistic people, selfish people, dreamers and practical individuals, envy, humility and kindness. Every contemporary cliché about human behaviour, from strivers to skivers has always existed.
This is not to suggest that changes in technology are not significant. One of my favourite stories about the changes wrought by mobile phones came from an article in The Economist that looked at sardine fishermen of Kerala in India, who in 1997 were throwing away their catches even though there was demand for them. With the introduction of mobile phones they were able to check the markets for fish while still at sea and land them where there was demand – reducing the waste significantly. But the fact is that much of what we do every day involves human behaviour and that fact does not I think, change significantly. So whatever your industry – be it steel or a cutting edge digital technology – always be aware of the constants of human behaviour.