CSR is about focusing on the little things

It seems odd that when corporations show their commitment to society through CSR they get the most out of doing something about the little things. Companies that are successful looks at what they do well and tries to figures out how this impact communities that they are active in, in ways they could not imagine if they did not have the tools provided though CSR.

When reviewing the many definitions of CSR that is out there it gives little or no clue how actually to conduct social responsibility. It would seem that if one just followed conventional wisdom it would be hard if not impossible to satisfy even the simplest requirements given by all these different classifications.

“The Social Responsibility refers to the obligations of businessmen to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society.” Bowen, 1953 in Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, which commonly regarded as the first milestone in modern CSR research and practice.

Another more modern definition have been issued by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) through their guidance on social responsibility “Responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, through transparent and ethical behaviour that contributes to sustainable development, including health and the welfare of society; takes into account the expectations of stakeholders; is in compliance with applicable law and consistent with international norms of behaviour; and is integrated throughout the organization and practiced in its relationships.”

Both of these very fine definitions give little or no clue to what companies should actually do to both successful in terms of profit, development and continued competitive advantage, and at the same time being in tune with societies moral compass.

But some companies have actually done quite well trying to combine their CSR with their core business. Just to give a few examples.

Danish Novo Nordisk has committed themselves to the task of “Changing diabetes” and have successfully introduced new products like Victoza inline with their core mission statement

The Swedish fashion company, H&M have under the statement “Conscious” has with worked to create sustainable fashion through a comprehensive CSR system that reduce risks in their supply chain.

Vivendi, the French telecom company, have initiated a program that promotes the safe use of the Internet to youth.

All of these initiatives are small when it comes to the efforts that the company needs to put into them because it is embedded in the “what we do” part of their business, but even so that have a huge impact on their outreach to the communities they are active in.

So even though it would seem that these successful companies are focusing on the “little things” they do represent a significant societal impact exactly for that reason.

A Critique of Pure Reason – Business forgot how to listen

Immanuel Kant Deutsch: Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant Deutsch: Immanuel Kant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kant said; “Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own intelligence! is therefore the motto of the enlightenment…” (Critique of Pure Reason)

But it would seem that Business did not learn that listening meant one had to listen to somebody else than the ones that represent the status quo.

What happened when it became common sense and a taken for granted thinking, that any business venture claiming to be socially responsible had to have a direct link to the bottom-line? As a keen follower of CSR and developments within business ethics it seems that the discourse of Corporate Social Responsibility have steered of course and to some extend have fall down a cliff.

CSR was about (I thought) making a difference to society not because it made good business sense, but because it was the right thing to do. Now it seems to be the other way around. Even though I to a large extend blame Porter and Kramer for their so-called “shared value” they only tap into a discourse, which already existed in the mainstream business culture. That “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud “(Thanks, Friedman for making it clear). That in order to be a legitimate in business one had first of all to think of the bottom-line, that even though business might disclaim Freidman’s claim they continue to follow his credo. CSR have become a business opportunity rather than change in they way that business relate to the society and communities that they are a integrated part of.

It seems to me that companies that pursue profit in the name of CSR are trying to stand on both sides of the river. Claiming that they have not left their liberal roots, while at the same time trying desperately to convince their more critical stakeholders that they are continuing down the path of rightness.

However, at the core of CSR is the ability to see beyond narrow self-interest looking beyond profit seeking and towards doing the right thing rather than doing things right. I do not claim that any business will be any more successful, or that they will even have a better brand or see an increase in dedicated employees. What my argument is that in order to really and I do mean really, know ones business environment one have to be open, open in a way that puts aside narrow interests of division leaders and executive managers and beyond one owns business raison d’etre. Individual business leaders have to realise that their actions cannot only be guided by the search of “the business case” they will have to use their intelligence to incorporate the guidance of the people who is affected by their decisions.

CSR and Development Corporation meets

Can development and CSR really meet or are they at odds no matter what you do? I have met many people from the development world who are really aggressive towards CSR and just about everything it stands for. And while I will be the first to admit that CSR is far from a perfect approach for business towards its social responsibilities it is just about the best guess out there on how its done.

So why all this hostility and aggressiveness towards business having a social responsibility, is it not what we all want that business take on more of the social burden that governments cant handle by their own?

Here are some common denominators on what people in development think is wrong with CSR.

  1. It is a branding and communication exercise that has nothing to do with social responsibility.

Well it is true that a lot of companies are actively communicating their CSR activities and that for some of the major companies CSR has become part of the image that we have of the company. For one I think the Abraham Lincoln (attributed) quote “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time but you cannot fool all the people all the time” rings true. All communication people know that you can’t lie forever and the same goes for corporate communication. If there were no hint of truth to in the brand it would at some point be exposed as a fake.

  1. It is only exercised to reduce the risk of bad PR.

There is a strong risk element in CSR because it is the only business approach that has some success in confronting social risk. Actually risk management have been one of the primary “business cases” for CSR. But risk is not limited to PR alone it can be many different things that has nothing to do with creating a good or bad image of the organisation. Proper risk management take a holistic approach to the organisation and so does CSR. With this approach on gets an insight into operations of the state, which under normal circumstances would be left out or marginalised.

  1. It is seen as a neoliberal project that is out to exploit the developing world

There seem to be the perception that business somehow has feelings that guide them to do evil. But as far as I know there is no evidence that companies in themselves are either good or evil, they are as far as I know just companies working in a market. But with the market there are structures and mechanisms that can be harmful. The companies might or might not be aware that their actions have a counterproductive result or even harm people who are in contact with its operations. CSR is an effort to confront some of theses impacts in a constructive and systematic way rather than tackling them one by one as they arise.

  1. It will be gone in three years.

The same thing was said three years ago and CSR is still around. In the years I have been involved in CSR there have been shifts in focus from reporting, to communication to governance. At some point either one have been the prevailing issues that have been talked about. I’m convinced that CSR will be around for many years to come because it works from the basic principle that organisations have a responsibility towards its stakeholders. This basic premise have been true always and that we call it CSR is more a construction of the time we live in rather than a shift in basic assumptions about business and society.

I hope and think that CSR professionals and development people can meet on common ground and that the two have something to learn from each other. But there is a strong need to confront some of the stereotypical assumptions about how business operates and how development people think.

Integrated Market Communication as a CSR communication strategy

In the introduction of the CSR training that I’m involved in with the CSR gender group I start out with asking the participants which definition of CSR they subscribe to. The answers normally vary a great deal depending on the audience but for the majority people would like to be told what and how CSR is to be formulated. These are the four definitions we present:

 “The Social Responsibility refers to the obligations of businessmen to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society.”

“The Social Responsibility of business is to tame the dragon, that is, to turn a social problem into economic, opportunities and economic benefit, into productive capacity, into human competence, into well-paid jobs, and into wealth.”

Corporate Social Responsibility is a concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis.”

“Responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, through transparent and ethical behaviour that contributes to sustainable development, including health and the welfare of society; takes into account the expectations of stakeholders; is in compliance with applicable law and consistent with international norms of behaviour; and is integrated throughout the organization and practiced in its relationships.”

However, I believe that is a misunderstanding to tell people what definition they should subscribe to. Rather it should be negotiated between the organisation and its key stakeholders on a continues basis. CSR is not a management system and will never become such a system simply because it is based on the principle that “Any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s purpose and objectives”(Freeman, 1984) have a stake in how the organization develop.

What organizations can do is to become effective in their efforts to identify, categories and negotiate with the stakeholder on what activities that it should engage in. Such a framework can be found using a integrated marketing (IMC) approach enabling organizations to communicate effectively with multiple stakeholders and at the same time indentifying less salient groups which might have a interest or is affected by the organizations activities.

IMC can be described as a process which involves the management and organization of all stakeholders 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.

An IMC approach will in my mind be the most effective framework a given organization can adopt if it wants to be regarded as social responsible player and keep some influence in relation to its identity, culture and image.

Can you be certified responsible?

Panorama of ISO 26000

Image via Wikipedia

The new standard from ISO 26000 is out and alive. I have written some words about the system before which are the biggest attempt to create one system for all the CR activities that an organization might engage in. I have some critical remarks on what I see as an attempt to micro manage norms and I believe is in essence a very big compromise. With over 100 pages of standard description it would make even the most committed CR professional dizzy.

There is certainly a need for some standardization within CR reporting no doubt. Just look at the top ten companies in your region and you will with guarantee find ten different ways of reporting. Even the ones using Global Reporting Initiative as a reporting platform have different ways of interpreting the standard even though it might seem very obvious at first.

What I find disturbing is that some organizations are certifying ISO 26000 for companies. So what the problem you might ask? Well if one get certified the auditor signs that a given organizations is living up certain predefined standards and have been audited in doing so. In a CR context this would mean that you are living up to the norms of your stakeholders. Basically CR can be defined as Engaging, Understanding and Complying with the norms of stakeholders and society at large. So with this definition an organization would be in compliance for about one second or less, which would be absurd.

As you might have guessed I do not believe that CR should be certifiable. Companies like Dansk Standard (DS) that claim that they can guide, audit and certify other companies CR efforts are in my eyes not creditable. A company might need outside assistance in their effort to engage with their stakeholders more effectively but certification is not the way to do that. There are several very good consulting companies on the market and they will be able to guide a CR process from start to end but a very few will put their name on the well and certify the company as being social responsible even if it was only a one year certification.

Any organization that I would come across with an DS26000 (the local certifiable version of ISO26000) plank on the wall would in my view be eligible for in-depth scrutiny by all the critical NGO’s and CSO’s that would claim to have a stake in its activities. I’m sure that companies that get that kind of certification have totally missed the point of what social responsibility means and what it entails.

There is a presentation of the DS standard in the start of next month maybe they will be able to convince me that I’m all wrong and of cause there is no issues related to being certifaiable good… I will keep you posted.