Islandbridge CEO Gerard Tannam’s submission to the Annual Unconference CongRegation.ie 2019, for presentation on 23rd November in Cong, Co. Galway.
Too often, those of us in business tend to see people as potential customers first. Communities are far too important in our lives for us to mistake them for markets, as a collection of people to be sold to.
I remember as a young boy hearing the adults talk about the prospects of Ireland joining something called the EEC, which I later learned stood for European Economic Community. I don’t recall much of the detail of what they discussed, but what I do remember seemed to centre only on the economic advantages of joining rather than on any of the other benefits of being a part of a much wider community.
In the meantime, of course, we discovered that we had much in common with our continental cousins-by-marriage, and found ourselves exchanging far more than the goods and services that were the focus of our discussions back then.
I was reminded of this recently as I listened to the various parties in the UK argue the priorities around agreeing a deal to exit the European Union, when it again appeared to me that the benefits of being a part of a greater community beyond national borders carried little weight.
Of course, as both citizen and business-owner, I have a vested interest in our being able to continue to trade easily and profitably with our nearest neighbours, but it dismays me that our discussions around their leaving seem to be much more around their exiting the common market than withdrawing from our community.
Now, this commercial take on community isn’t confined to discussions around Britain’s exit. More and more, we talk about communities as though they were simply markets. And the more we talk about and think about our neighbours in this way, the less likely we are to enjoy the real benefits of being part of this wider community.
When we put a price on participation, when we consider a person purely in terms of their buying power, we are in danger of devaluing our sense of community and becoming instead a common market where all we share are our purchasing behaviours and attitudes.
Whilst access to a common market may continue to be one very important benefit of being a part of a community, it’s vital that we don’t overlook the more essential benefits such as shared values, common interests and collective projects, all of which enable us to achieve far more together than alone.
When we see community only as market, we are in serious danger of growing cynical around our relationships with others in our communities and, in the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing’.
Whilst it’s always useful to understand the cost of the contributions we make into our relationships with neighbours and colleagues, viewing those costs in isolation without appreciating the return on our investment in terms of the great value to our wellbeing and the greater richness of our experience means our sums will never seem to add up.
And so, we must see community as meaning much more than market and understand that our markets are built to serve our communities, and not the other way around.
This is not to suggest that markets built on such foundations cannot be commercially successful. We only have to visit some of the great food markets in continental Europe, or indeed in our own city of Cork, to see that a market can thrive when it is founded to meet the needs of the community.
As we survey the market-stall holders and their customers in full flow, and see the fruitful exchange of produce for cash, the evident sense of prosperity and well-being makes it easy to appreciate that there’s far more being traded than what’s changing hands before us.
In that moment, market does look very much like community, because in that moment, the market is serving the community, and buyer and seller is each a vital player adding to the greater value that’s being generated in every transaction.
Four Takeaway Points:
- Too often, those of us in business tend to see people as potential customers first.
- Communities are far too important in our lives for us to mistake them for markets, as a collection of people to be sold to.
- When we consider a person purely in terms of their buying power, we devalue our sense of community and become instead a market where all we share are those common purchases.
- We must see community as meaning much more than market and build markets to serve our communities, rather than the other way around.