EMPIRICAL data show that the lower the per capita gross domestic product of a country the higher the levels of corruption in that country. Zimbabwe is no exception — we suffer from debilitating levels of corruption due to a dysfunctional economy.
Corruption is a topical issue in this country at the moment. The classic grounded model of invisible entrepreneuring (a culmination of a formal research I carried out over four years) helps us understand better the mechanics of corruption, enabling us to have a better shot at tackling this malady.
Corruption needs a social structure to enable and sustain it. Social structuring is the informal clustering of invisible entrepreneurs (corruption practitioners) in order to set rules of behaviour and operations that confer identity and credentials showing who the insiders and outsiders are. Social structuring is meant to control the behaviour of rivals for the long-term mutual benefit of rivals through prescribing a set of rules of identity and behavioural expectations that advance the collective self-interest of invisible entrepreneurs. Social structuring prescribes the rules of how and when corruption practitioners should compete and collaborate. Social structuring is accomplished through the sub-patterns of rule-setting, normative share defending, assymetring and apprenticing.
Rule-setting is the establishment of acceptable norms of behaviour in service of the invisible entrepreneurs’ shared self-interests and making explicit those behaviours detrimental to these shared self-interests. Rule-setting makes explicit the rules of equity or fair play essential to levelling the competitive field among invisible entrepreneurs.
Fair-play rules force collaboration in certain circumstances. There is an explicit recognition that a minimum of self-imposed rules of order is in the mutual interest of invisible entrepreneurs as a collective. For instance, rival invisible entrepreneurs such as cartels observe unwritten rules of invisible entrepreneuring such as over-pricing goods and service to the same extent. Rule-setting also spells out sanctions to be meted out to invisible entrepreneurs flouting rules set by the social structure.
Normative share defending is a sophisticated pattern of behaviour that an invisible entrepreneur is socialised into in order to protect a rival (asset owner)’s legitimate interests. This mutual protection of the economic interests is achieved by ensuring that the asset owner, whose asset is being abused does not incur income losses beyond a level set by the social structure to which the invisible entrepreneur belongs. The quantum of the minimum economic benefit is kept a secret within the social structure. This benefit target set by the social structure is pegged below the income target required by the owner.
The social structure of invisible entrepreneurs employs normative share defending as a mechanism to temper un-strategic greed among invisible entrepreneurs. Un-strategic greed blows the cover for invisible entrepreneuring. Normative share defending represents the reasoning by the invisible entrepreneur that creaming off the asset owners in perpetuity is not strategic in that employing invisible entrepreneuring indiscriminately represents a threat to the long-term interests of the invisible entrepreneur.
By way of illustration, an invisible entrepreneur can be hounded out of the social structure when the invisible entrepreneur habitually hands in daily takings well below the normative share target. Members of the social structure to which the invisible entrepreneur belongs will not sympathise with the censured or “ex-communicated” errant invisible entrepreneur—he or she is a threat to their long-term personal corrupt interests. Normative share defending embodies the paradox that in order to compete with the asset owner in a bid to optimise personal gain, balancing the asset owner’s interests and the invisible entrepreneur’s is necessary.
Asymmetring is about initiating novice invisible entrepreneurs into the social structure to coach them how to keep classified information within the structure. Asymmetring protects confidential information and prevents damaging information from getting into the hands of outsiders. Asymmetring assists in explaining how the practices of invisible entrepreneurs are strikingly similar across different geographical sites and are stable over time. The database of credentialed initiates and invisible entrepreneurs in good standing insofar as loyalty to the expectations of the social structure is concerned is communicated informally through the network of similar social structures operating in different geographical sites.
Asymmetring is similar to the sticky-leaky phenomenon associated with Brown and Duguid’s networks of practice. Brown and Duguid discovered that people who share a practice within an organisation will not release information to other departments within the organisation yet that information voluntarily finds its way to people outside the organisation who share the same practice. This is similar to Adjognon’s silence juggling pattern where power brokers keep rivals guessing to what they are thinking. Silence juggling assymetrises corruption information so that those outside the corruption social structure are kept in the dark over the invisible entrepreneuring shenanginans.
Assymetring also parallels what Windsperger, Kocsis and Rosta found in their research of joint ventures; they found that a joint venture partner in control of key intangible knowledge assets had leverage over the other partner. In collaborating, in the context of invisible entrepreneuring, asymmetrying prevents intangible knowledge assets from leaking to temporary allies (asset owners).
Apprenticing is the practice of building and strengthening social bonds between and among novice and experienced invisible entrepreneurs. This ensures initiates build and strengthen loyalty to the social structure. Initiates are tested through apprenticing to gauge their likelihood to adhere to the expectations laid out by rule-setting.
The ultimate aim of apprenticing is for invisible entrepreneurs to cohere around the social structure’s rules in order to protect the secrets of how invisible entrepreneuring is conducted from outsiders. Apprenticing involves active participation in the practices of the social structures. It serves as a curriculum to credential initiates. Those un-credentialed are frustrated or eliminated out of the system.
Invisible entrepreneurs through social structuring frame situations encountered in the course of operations as either threats to enhancing or opportunities to boosting personal economic marginal gain. The perceived level of threat to an invisible entrepreneur’s personal economic marginal gain triggers different dosages of competition and cooperation.
There are three implications for those tasked with fighting corruption.
First, the biggest solution to nauseating levels of corruption is to drastically improve the economy — raising prosperity levels in a country will dramatically set in motion processes that cull corruption.
Second, we should be alive to the fact that corruption is practised by a network of individuals and groups of individuals who share rules of behaviour. Corruption is group behaviour. The one big-fish approach to corruption busting is at best incomplete — as one fish caught does not destroy the ecosystem of corruption. Target the pond or the dam where the big fish is caught. One big-fish caught is replaced by other big-fish in the water.
Third, it is very difficult to find out what is going on in the corruption ecosystem due to assymetring which protects information from flowing out of the corruption networks. Rewards for repentant invisible entrepreneurs to access the secrets of operations is one way to bust the corruption networks.
Corruption can be busted in one fell swoop; improving the livelihoods of the majority of people and enabling people to be economically independent.
Brett Chulu is a management consultant and a classic grounded theory researcher who has published research in an academic peer-reviewed international journal. — firstname.lastname@example.org.