For businesses, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability are here to stay. Even in 2010, at the height of the financial crisis, a survey done by the management consulting firm, Accenture, found that 93 percent of corporate CEOs agreed that “sustainability will be critical to the future success of their companies, in spite of the recent economic downturn.”
But for some organizations new to CSR, it might seem like an afterthought at best, or a loose collection of pet projects at worst.
According to V. Kasturi Rangan, who teaches a CSR executive program at Harvard Business School, in many companies, “there's always a marketing strategy, an operations strategy, an HR strategy.”
“But what is the CSR strategy? Hardly any,” says Rangan.
Accordingly, many leaders are turning to executive education in order to integrate CSR aspects into their corporate strategies. And interest in these programs has been expanding to unexpected industries. It's no longer just reputation-conscious mining companies or companies with manufacturing operations in developing countries.
“Even straight, run-of-the-mill organizations: many banks, financial service organizations, consumer packaged goods companies – they all seem to be interested,” says Rangan.
Financial services firms, for example, see value in executive education because it helps them align their traditional avenues of CSR – such as philanthropy – within a more strategic perspective. Some business schools are beginning to offer executive programs that specifically address sustainability in the financial sphere. For example, Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management offers a one-day course called “Green Finance: Measuring and Mitigating Sustainability Risks,” which focuses on the corporate risks of climate change.
Creating shared value
A core concept at the heart of many executive courses in CSR is the idea of “creating shared value,” (or “CSV”) – the understanding that a firm's productivity depends on the health of the community around it, and that companies should recalibrate their metrics for “success” to include more holistic factors.
“Doing Well While Doing Good” – a one-day course offered at Washington University in St. Louis' Olin Business School – reconciles CSR within this wider framework. According to program teacher Stacy Jackson, “the broadest perspective is to consider business broadly as a sustainable 'human' value-creating entity where there is no distinction between CSR or CSV.”
By using this wider perspective, some executive courses are taking on fundamental topics. For example, the three-week “Managing Sustainable Development” course at the Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands helps participants understand how issues like poverty and the failure of basic public services can be managed through a cooperative approach.
According to Mirjana Stanisic, the program manager, past participants have mainly come from developing countries, where there is an increasing awareness of CSR topics.
“They are fully aware of the need and of the development in CSR,” says Stanisic. “The awareness is there, but the means, and the process, need a push. And that takes time.”
Time is one thing. But for many managers involved in CSR programs, this awareness can be difficult to come by in the workplace.
“The research and the thought leadership in the field has jumped way ahead of practice,” says Harvard's V. Kasturi Rangan.
“If you talk to most senior leaders, they usually all agree on the idea of creating shared value,” says Rangan. “But the problem is that to execute it is very, very hard.”
For executives interested in developing their company's CSR strategies, typical challenges that include a lack of leverage and not knowing about current best practices in the field.
To help with this, during Harvard's four-day course in "Corporate Social Responsibility: Strategies to Create Business and Social Value," participants engage case studies to explore current CSR models, look at the current research in the area, and analyze and discuss their own company's sustainability challenges. Rangan says that, while participants might not have a CSR strategy nailed-down by the end of the course, they get a framework, and “then they can make a strategy out of it, mold it, and make it mesh with the corporate strategy.”
“Then you are able to create shared value.”
Photo: Russ Tucknott / Creative Commons