The big question of responsibility

Climate change, the credit crunch and a growing awareness of sustainability issues should mean CSR's days as a cosmetic corporate tweak are over. But how can the agents of change convince leaders of the shifts in strategy required? Insight, courage and bravado all help, says Professor Judi Marshall

Anyone asked to address corporate social responsibility (CSR) faces great opportunities. But they are also likely to end up, sooner or later, challenging established patterns of corporate strategy, values and norms, and what the organisation is and does – and experiencing the push-back of resistance. Working on these issues means developing resilience and leadership.

With the new awareness of environmental issues and the shift in attitudes caused by the financial crisis, CSR has become something which cannot be merely cosmetic, a refinement or a tweak in behaviour or the presentation of activity, but demands fundamental changes which affect the entire corporate paradigm. It means changing corporate strategy and all the consequent challenges to power relationships and dynamics that come with it. From this point of view, the agents of change are in an unenviable, controversial and perhaps even tenuous situation. This is political and risky work. No corporate responsibility manager should forget their potential to be seen as too revolutionary if they go too far. Although they must probably also be willing to forget this, if they are to have the combination of insight, courage and bravado necessary to offer their organisation what it might not yet know it – and society – needs.

Some notions of corporate responsibility seem organisationally benign, are financially beneficial, and are therefore readily adopted. It is argued that nothing significant can be initiated unless a compelling business case can be made for it. This approach is obviously paradoxical: How can a case be made in current economics-dominated mindsets for a model of business that integrates what has been called the triple bottom line – economic, environmental and social considerations?

Also, corporate responsibility tends to be pursued at an organisational level. In recent years, there have been impressive company affirmations of commitment in the UK such as Marks & Spencer’s Plan A (“Because there is no Plan B”). But sustainability is not an individual organisation-level concept – making its advocacy at this level commensurately difficult – because companies operate in a market-driven system which means that socially responsible activity might be punished in terms of financial results.

The new context of urgency around environmental issues and concern over the behaviour of financial markets, however, has brought significant changes in both the response to CSR at senior levels and in the pressure from workforces as a whole. In the face of the seriousness of issues being faced, the internal walls and power struggles are losing their relevance. The issues for business are profound. Questions over supplies of fuel, water and other natural resources, the future of growing conditions for agriculture, etc. means there is now no halfway house. Constrained economic times offer more incentive to take action for sustainability, given the potential mutual benefits that can be realised. Many organisations see the need to integrate a more strategic view on sustainability as a key risk management approach.

The credit crunch is another factor in a sharpening of people’s thinking about what CSR might entail. Far from being a ‘nice-to-have’ with mainly public relations purposes, the broad remit of CSR enables organisations to address environmental issues, sustainability, carbon use and social justice – issues that are key to our collective future. And with the awareness and understanding of the problems – as scholars accumulate evidence of climate change they find convincing, as information about global poverty and inequality are available, as loss of bio-diversity suggests that we are in the process of the “sixth mass extinction” – CSR has become something tangible and urgent rather than a form of charitable behaviour and “good” corporate culture.

As appreciation of the urgency of climate change becomes more accepted, more senior organisational leaders are pledging carbon reduction with conviction, as some did in the UK at the Prince of Wales’s May Day Business Summit on Climate Change organised by Business in the Community. While many organisations are taking a wait-and-see approach, there are examples of firms who are finding competitive advantage by taking a lead. But even with these welcome and bold commitments, the work of putting change into practice is not yet done.

My work on responsible career choices has shown the emergence of generations of people who are more willing to take the risks involved in a business career relating to social responsibility rather than pure gain, who want to act for common good. Promoting CSR is seen by this group as exciting, bringing opportunities rather than just risks. The necessary qualities for the role include being strong on systemic thinking – an ability to see and take action based on the big picture – as well as influencing skills, courage, and an ability to be rewarded by patient long-term progress rather than instant results.

To fully embed CSR in corporate strategy, a framework is needed for the activity, and for the leaders of this activity, to follow. This has a number ofinterconnected dimensions, including systemic thinking, inquiry and an understanding of power relationships. The priority is systemic awareness – that all action should be in the service of a deeper sense of purpose provided by that sense of context: of climate change, the challenges of sustainability and issues of social justice.

Thorough knowledge and insights into the issues within the organisation’s sector are crucial to inform what the impacts of the changing context and an unsustainable approach will be. I suggest that leaders of change take an action research approach, so that activity and its effects are treated as inquiry. Nothing can be taken for granted, including their own sense of purpose which requires continual review. All attempts at influence or intervention need to be regarded as experimental with all the potential consequences being tracked. What emerges is potentially valid information, even if the action appears to be a failure. Planning how to act differently in a familiar situation is important, but can also head you straight into trouble if you invoke resistance from people and systems around you.

As is sometimes said of organisations: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. One alternative is “inaction planning”, which means not initially trying to act differently, but trying to notice what is going on and gather as much understanding about it as possible. More fully informed, you may then decide to try to change something, or you may wait and see what these insights prompt.

Considering issues of power is important, as current patterns of activity and thinking are often held in place by patterns of power. Systemic patterns can be maintained, as well as challenged and changed, by dynamics of power. These are complex and multiple. Someone taking leadership for sustainability and social justice needs to be acutely aware of what they consider to be issues of power and to look to build coalitions with others who understand the sustainability agenda and what it means for that particular business. Some CSR thinkers will argue that for strategic change to occur there needs to be senior level support, while others contend that pressure from the majority of employees is more important. The fact is, both are needed.

Power can also be seen as acting covertly, symbolically, through the management of meaning. Apparent cooperation can mask potential latent conflict. People can become more empowered through consciousness-raising. For example, a company may use triple bottom line language in its CSR reporting, but all involved – insiders and other stakeholders – may assume that economic factors will over-ride the other two dimensions in any decision-making that is seen as contentious. Triple bottom line accounting itself adopts dominant, accounting, language. Trying to contest the power involved in established forms of language is a major challenge and conundrum to those taking leadership for sustainability.

Leaders also need to consider the models of change that are used. Much planned and directed change is ineffectual or has unforeseen consequences. For example, people find ways to meet targets without making the envisaged systemic improvements that bring about fundamental and ongoing change. Notions of change that are emergent and process-based will offer more resources.

If all this sounds demanding for those seeking to take leadership for sustainability, it is. And at the same time it means engaging in whatever way you can with the challenges of our times.

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