In the final instalment of a series of blogs about an event at the University of Bradford School of Management that put sustainability in the workplace under the spotlight, Dr Anna Zueva-Owens reflects on the insights shared at the workshop.
The PRME workshop on Working in the Context of Sustainability, Ethics and CSR brought together academics, students and practitioners to reflect on the nature of skills and characteristics of successful managers working in the areas of corporate responsibility and sustainability.
The discussion is timely. The notions of corporate responsibility and sustainability are embraced in form, if not in spirit, by an increasing number of companies in both developed and developing countries.
One would be hard pressed to find a website of a major international company that would not have a section covering activities in these areas. Corporate responsibility is becoming mainstream.
Companies appoint specialised corporate responsibility managers and organise responsibility teams and departments. Yet, we know little about their work.
The role of corporate social responsibility
The workshop started with presentations by Steven Butts, head of corporate responsibility at Morrison’s. His colourful account of how over the years he has moved from the most remote corner of Morrison’s corporate campus to an office right next to the top management team clearly demonstrates the mainstreaming of the corporate responsibility function.
Tom Smith, director of insight and planning at Sedex, an organisation working to ensure ethical practices in global supply chains, reflected further on the role of the responsibility manager.
There are paradoxes. On one hand, the responsibility manager must be “a bit of chameleon” – “academic, networker, global nomad, entrepreneur, diplomat”. On the other hand, he or she must be a specialist holding in-depth knowledge and contributing to a specific business function.
“There is no job in CSR”, Tom said. There may have been several years ago, but today companies like Sedex mainly deal with managers representing responsibility activities in particular business departments and not the broad responsibility function.
Corporate responsibility managers are also at once inside and outside the organisation. They must have solid knowledge of company functions, but their ultimate goal is to “do themselves out of the job”.
Corporate Social Responsibility skills
The workshop discussions revealed differences in perspectives on the skills necessary for corporate responsibility work between business practitioners, students and academics.
Business practitioners and MBA students were markedly pragmatic in their outlook. They emphasised such skills as effective communication, negotiation, relationship-building, leadership, and analytics. Business and industry knowledge, and knowledge of responsibility practice were also important.
Interestingly, idealism was perceived as impractical and actually damaging to the responsibility work. Idealists set unrealistic goals, have difficulty relating to the needs of other practitioners in their organisations, and thus compromise their own legitimacy.
Academics came up with similar skill lists, but did not raise idealism as a potential barrier to success. They noted the importance of such virtues as patience, reflexivity, critical thinking and a questioning outlook. There was one thing, however, that everybody agreed on: All skills were equally important.
Radical changes to CSR are needed
So what are the lessons learnt? It appears that a university course dominated by general business ethics and responsibility modules is presently not the best path for a business student wanting to work in corporate responsibility.
Business continues to value insider knowledge – business practice can be made responsible only when one knows this practice through and through. A logical extension of this would be design of business school programmes with responsibility discussions building on and extending specific business functions subjects.
The notion that idealism is not welcome is, however, unsettling. Many philosophical understandings of ethics view ethics as preparedness for a radical change in oneself in response to the needs of others.
Considering how deeply embedded violence, exploitation and lack of justice are in global business practice, radical change and radical difference are needed.