Limits to Transparency

If only the world could be more transparent it would be a much better place to live in. Companies would behave more responsible, Governments would be able to enforce rules, regulate much more effectively and people in general would have a much better idea about the powers influencing their everyday lives.

Transparency has been the mantra of the CSR movement we have hailed the word on numerous occasions on every seminar I have ever attended. When companies have come to us we have told them that If only they were a little more transparent they would not be in the mess that they are in right now! Or we have preached to them that the only way to protect themselves is if they can report on a few more indicators in order to quantify their processes and show that they are truly sustainable.

I have worked with these systems for the past 15 years and I know every one of them from A to Z. I wake up at night reciting ISO26000 on Concepts, Terms and Definitions and I know the weak points in the Global Compact and all the companies that cut corners to be part of the sustainable business movement and being FB pals with Ban Ki-Moon.

On of my friends Michael Koploy send me an entry he made on 5 Questions to Start the Sustainable Supply Chain Conversation and it made me thinking about some of the things that we continue to talk about but keep missing. He does argue for more transparency, as we all do, but also that we should take a look beyond the apparent and into the DNA of the company. The “what are we all about”-question of sustainable business. How do we get managers to think for themselves, their business and the society that they are part of at the same time?

We produce incentive plans and bonus schemes, but it did little or nothing to prevent greed and poor ethics during the initial stages of the financial crisis. We created lists of “good” companies, but they do not seem to do much better than the ones that are “bad”. We have systems upon systems that produce endless reports that only a handful of people actually read. So what is the answer to creating a sustainable DNA for business leaders?

Well for starters we should take a good hard look at our educational system both the public and private ones. What are we actually teaching our coming leaders about how to run a business? Are we teaching them how to create a sustainable business model in more than financial terms or have our business schools and universities become temples of past ideologies? I do not talk about revolution or throwing professors out on the streets (even though some of them might need to go that way), but about taking a hard look at what we actually teach our students. We know that blindly following the thinking and guidelines of Keynes, Hayek or Friedman only works in the short run (Keynes smiles) so why not take that insight seriously and bringing it into the lecture hall.

Secondly we need to make shareholders/owners accountable. It will be a significant step away from what we have been used to be doing until now and nothing like business as usual. For too many years one could have an ownership form where one could own a company but not be accountable for its actions. We appoint a board of directors, but we do not really care who they are or what they are doing, as long as they keep producing the results that we want them to. In the process they become complacent and distant from the decision making process. And when things eventually go wrong they are often caught unaware of what have been going on right under their noses.

It would be presumptuous of me to say that I have all the answers, but I do know that its takes more than measuring to create a sustainable business as Michael points out. CSR is more a symptom of a financial ideology that have been over interpreted and gone wrong than an independent movement. Our never-ending quest for accountability and transparency will not succeed until we realise that we need to make some changes to how business operate and we do not do this by replacing with just another ideology.

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Getting to the early adaptor using IMC – Strategies for implementing CSR

When trying to implement any kind of new innovation within an organisation or in a social context it is not without importance how and with what tools this is done. With CSR or Business ethics it is even more important because it is hard if not impossible to remove or erase what has already been done. What is important is that you get the ethics of your business into the DNA of your organisation, as Wayne Visser would put it. While this might not seem a like an enormous task it is not as complicated as it might seem. It might take a while for it to sink in but if you keep it simple and stay close to your strategy at hand you will get there eventually.

First of all one needs a holistic but structured approach. What you need to do is to answer the What, Why and How and When of your organisational CSR. This is not to say that this is a simple four step model or the only way of finding out what is important but it makes sense to establish a clear platform from were your business ethics can be expressed.

You need to define what is important to your organisation. If you are consulting company it might make much sense for your organisations members to talk about carbon footprint even though it is a very ‘hot’-subject in the CSR community. What might make more sense is to talk about how you see your relationship with the customer, how far will you go in coaching them, and at what point will it be important to say stop or escalate a issue to your management. If you are a designer it might be important to look into the people who produce your cloth. Are their any child labour and what about women’s rights in the factories that produce your unique designs? It is the ‘What’ is important to my company, and to me that should be in focus not what is the hot issue in the news or what the marketing department tells you will sell.

When you have made it clear what you stand for you need to investigate why these issues are important to You and not somebody else. It might seem trivial but if you can’t answer why something is important it will be really hard to persuade your employees, management, customers and suppliers why change is such a great idea. There is no one-size-fits-all on the Why of CSR and Business ethics. You might have personal reasons why this issue is important or it might be part of the collective memory of your organisation the central issue is that it is an ethical issue that you feel strongly about. This dos not mean that you should be blind for other would be subjects out there, but if you are going to build you business on ethical grounds than it should at least have a strong foundation and answering the Why will help you do just that.

What you have looked at the What and Why you turn to How. You have gathered some thought on how you are going to interpret the issues, which are important to you into some kind of guideline for the whole organisation. The How can have many forms it can be codes of conduct or code or ethics or it can be less visible as part of the standard operating procedures that you ask everybody to follow. In my experience the later is the better because it directly influences human behaviour, but one as an organisation you might have to make a clear statement both inside and outside its boundaries and then a code could be a good option. Both because it create a clear statement to your employees and management on what is acceptable behaviour but also because it tells your external stakeholders and not least your customers what you stand for.

Last one in the initial exercise is to plan the When and this is where you need to think about your early adaptors. You now know your What, Why and How of your organisational ethics now you need to let your invention grow. You know that your idea about the ethics of your organisation is founded in its DNA and the idea behind and know that it is rooted in your product and cultural heritage.  This means that you need to identify who you want to communicate with and find an appropriate channel that will enable you to reach these people.

However, you need to communicate the same message to all stakeholders not only the ones that you want to adopt your innovation. As you only have one opportunity to communicate your message and reach the people who will act as agents for change you have to use all the channels at your disposal. Integrated Marketing Communication is concept that is designed to make all aspects of marketing and internal communication such as advertising, publications, sales promotion, public relations, issues management, media relations, direct marketing and not least CSR to work together as one unified and powerful force, rather than permitting each to work in isolation. The combination of marketing and public relations tools lets an organisation influence for instance the image, public reputation and employee attitudes through the consistence and persistence of a few powerful messages.

“[IMC] is a process which involves the management and organization of all ”agents” in the analysis, planning, implementation and control of all marketing communication contacts, media, messages and promotional tools focused at selected target audiences in such a way as to derive the greatest enhancement and coherence of marketing communication effort in achieving predetermined product and marketing communication objectives.” (joep Cornelissen, 2008 among others)

The selected audience in this case is your agents of change. So even though all members of your audience will have the information at hand about what you are communicating it is the agent who is in your mind when you design your message. He or she properly already known to you or at least your vision of such a person, he is competent both as a person but also as a technician. It is a respected person who has their own values but is loyal giving the person credibility among his peers. It is a person who lives for the future and is willing to take a limited risk in trying something new her or his fuel is passion and the willingness and ability to transform a vision into something more tangible (such as your vision for a ethical business platform). It is a self-starter and motivator that do need fuel to run but ones started will interpret your vision and make it his or her own.

One of the main features about the change agent is that it does not have to be a employee it can be a customer who likes your product and buys in to your corporate culture and want to be evolved. It can be a supplier who sees the long-term benefit of a close relationship with your organisation or a junior member of your staff who buys into your idea. The innovation can get hold anywhere where there is a change agent present who displays the features that you are looking for.

Next week I will try to have a go at how you can use different types of communication channels including social media to get your change agent motivated and not least engaged in your strategic CSR efforts.