What was Walmart thinking? Or do they? Just as the noise has abated somewhat from their public relations woes of a few years back, the New York Times outs Walmart in a bribery scandal that will haunt the company for decades.
In 2006, I made a documentary called "Why Walmart Works & Why They Make Some People Crazy." I had originally intended to do a study of Walmart's incomparable logistics, but I let myself get co-opted into the political battle involving Walmart at the time. I've blogged on The Huffington Post about Walmart for years.
During this time, I got to meet some of the executives now implicated in the bribery scandal. They all seemed to be capable people, if bland in a Dave Bowman kind of way.
Walmart and I split when when they implemented wage caps on older employees. At the time, I wondered how the company could be so tin-eared as to try this in the midst of the biggest PR battle in American business history. What were they thinking?
Then, their vice chairman Thomas Coughlin was implicated in a scheme involving siphoning funds using gift cards to pay for anti-union activity. What were they thinking?
In 2007, Ann Zimmerman of the Wall Street Journal broke the story of Walmart managers holding secret meetings that encouraged employees not to vote for Obama. Huh?
The gaffes continued. Walmart hired fake bloggers. They hired, then fired, former Ambassador Andrew Young. They hatched a plan to force gravitationally challenged employees to do more physical labor to help them lose weight. What the hell were they thinking?
Here's the problem. Walmart's executives don't think. They don't have to.
Why? Because they have computers. Walmart has double the computer power of the Defense Department. Walmart is not a store. Walmart is a self referential algorithm, which data mines the purchasing data of 130 million Americans each week and then optimizes what should be on the shelves, independent of human interaction.
If you're like me, and you stay up late at night looking at aerial pictures of Walmart superstores (don't ask), you see from above they strikingly resemble a computer chip, with the delivery trucks being the inputs, and the shopping carts as outputs. Walmart is an algorithm.
The "face" of Walmart shouldn't be Smiley, it should be HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I believe Walmart breeds executives who think primarily in terms of logistics and numbers, patting themselves on the back for their managerial acumen, when in reality the computers run the place. These executives oversee the largest private employer in the U.S., whose revenue is 2.5 percent of our GDP. These executives, putatively some of the best in commerce, somehow don't quite understand the simple moral premise that violating domestic and foreign bribery laws might be wrong. They're not thinking. They are paid to think. Or they just don't care. They are paid to care.
In 2001, HAL advises Dave Bowman, "I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over."
In the wake of what is becoming one of the biggest scandals in American business history, Walmart's Board of Directors might want to take HAL's advice.