It's commonplace to think of corporate social responsibility as an attitude or an orientation, but what if CSR were viewed as more of a took kit - one that is required by a new business environment characterised by scarcer resources, greater regulation and higher ethical expectations? If that were the case, what would this tool kit look like? David Williams talks to experts who came to the QS Top MBA Careers Conference on CSR held at Cass Business School in London and asks them to predict the CSR skills that will be needed in the new world.
A corporate responsibility tool kit should grant competency in the economic, the environmental and the social spheres, says Dr Patricia Hind, Director of the Full-Time MBA at Ashridge. She argues that it is obvious how you do this in the economic arena: by teaching subjects such as finance, risk management and commercial awareness. At the same time, the measurability of the environmental bottom-line means that this too is relatively easy to put into a traditional syllabus as programmes can look at functions such as supply chain management and accountancy-like procedures such as carbon foot-printing. However, it is in the social or complex stakeholder area in which the responsibilities have always been ill defined.
For Dr Hind, a hardcore skill in this social arena would be the ability to negotiate. She points to research Ashridge did with the UN recently which showed how most business leaders now believe the biggest challenge they will face over the next few years will be dealing with regulatory regimes and legislation. Simply knowing who your stakeholders are isn't enough; you have to reach agreement with them, she says. The ability to reach agreement and influence regulators and governments will therefore become an important skill.
For James Robey, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Capgemini UK, one of the most important future skills will be the ability to manage the strategic implications of sustainability, particularly with regard to resource constraints, energy scarcity and climate change.
Sustainability is going to be so fundamental to the business environment over the next ten to fifteen years that it ought to be taught as the over-arching context through which specific topics are considered, he explains. It doesn't matter whether you are looking at finance, operations, business economics or even human resource management, in the future all those topics will require a cognisance of sustainability.
Strategic procurement and ethical supply-chain management
One consequence of a world in which resources become scarce is that procurement becomes a vital function. According to James Robey, it seems likely that new areas of expertise will emerge within purchasing as the importance of cultivating a sustainable supply chain grows. The ability to locate and negotiate a reliable supply of the resources a manufacture needs will become as important a skill as prospecting for customers. At the same time, as the notion of ethical accountability continues to take hold, organisations can expect internal and external scrutiny to travel further and further along the supply chain. Purchasing has never only about price alone of course, but the ability to put the price of a resource in the context of ethical standards is likely to become another vital skill.
Matching CSR initiatives with branding
Once you can see the opportunities for integrating CSR into the strategy of the organisation, you can see them everywhere, says Helen Davis, Head of Respect and Responsibility at Orange, a mobile phone company, and the ability to integrate both traditional and innovative charitable activities with the brand is becoming another essential approach to managing CSR. Orange, for example, recognises that part of its social responsibility is to provide young people with skills that will guard them against some of the negative possibilities of living in an interconnected world. And to this end it works in schools on issues such as cyber-bullying and on-line safety. The company also selects the ten charities it works with according to how well they chime with the brand.
We have lots and lots of charities come to us wanting partnership arrangements, but what we decided was that we needed a clear strategy around selecting corporate partnerships, says Helen Davis. We want to make sure we are doing things that are relevant so that they can add value to our brand. Yes it's absolutely about doing the right thing, but as a corporation it is about doing things in a way that is relevant to the business.
Companies are still a long way from exploiting the opportunities that CSR gives them to sell more stuff, agrees Don Leslie, Director Management Consultancy Recruitment Division at management recruiters BLT.
For the last several years, business school have been using a participatory leadership model in which the leader's role was seen as being about finding out what people want and helping them to achieve it. But according to Dr Patricia Hind, the new CSR-led climate might see a return to a more visionary, more decisive and even militaristic style of leadership. I think as the commercial environment for responsible or sustainable organisations becomes more complex, more ambiguous and more critical, businesses will need a more directive style of leadership in which the leader provides real clarity around what to do and how to do it, she says.
Skills located in every manager not in a department
The one thing many of the experts agreed on is that while CSR is slowly moving from the margins to the mainstream, given enough time it will become universal. In many ways, I see parallels between sustainability today and issues such as Total Quality Management (TQM) in the past, says James Robey. Twenty years ago, organisations were setting up specific TQM departments to manage quality. Today most large companies have closed their TQM departments as the quality mindset had become embedded throughout the entire organisation. I believe that in the longer term it is feasible that sustainability management will also become ubiquitous.
MBAs ought to be the ones to get their hands on the tool kit first.