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CSRlive Commentary

10.28.2009 - 04:25PM

Category: Events

Corporate Social Responsibility + Social Media = Promise of Transformation

Billbauephoto

By CSRwire Contributing Writer Bill Baue of Sea Change Media

"This is a world of transparency, openness, two-way dialogue with your constituents... I just think that's part of the game today." So said GE CEO Jeff Immelt in response to a question I posed to him, on how his company uses web 2.0 tools to engage with its stakeholders on sustainability issues, last week at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco (see it here - scroll to 23:15). "If you're not willing to be completely transparent on just about everything you do, and if you can't tolerate life in a world where you're sharing information openly and getting input from lots of different people, where they have the ability to critique, criticize, have inputs... you better find a new profession," he said.

I was there gathering material for a research fellowship I'm conducting with Marcy Murninghan and Bob Massie on web 2.0 and corporate accountability for the Harvard-Kennedy Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative, with the Summit sandwiched between the JustMeans Social Media for Sustainability and the Business for Social Responsibility conferences. The week's takeaways: web 2.0 holds great promise to transform the way companies engage with stakeholders, but we are still way early in the innovation curve on using web 2.0 to advance corporate sustainability and accountability!

That said, web 2.0 has already radically transformed conference power dynamics: gone is the one-way transmission of information from the stage that privileges presenters; now, thanks to Twitter and hashtags, the audience voices itself in a meta-dialogue transpiring in real-time during presentations. For example, we who followed the #justmeans hashtag throughout that conference participated in creating a steady stream of comments, criticisms, questions - and "distillations" that I characterized as a "subtle art," sometimes capturing points better than they're presented. Kudos to Natural Logic CEO Gil Friend for best distillation -- of InnoCentive CEO Dwayne Spradlin: "Crowdsourcing vs outsourcing requires profound organizational change."

Harnessing the power of crowdsourcing, "Getting the Message Out" panel moderator Chad Boettcher of Weber Shandwick projected the conference Twitter feed on the screen to display audience questions for Treehugger Founder Graham Hill, TriplePundit Co-Publisher Ryan Mickle, and JustMeans Managing Director Deb Berman. "I was really happy with this use of distributive technology," said CSRwire Chair Joe Sibilia, who I ran into at both the JustMeans and BSR conferences.

Joe and I shared our concern about web 2.0 in the CSR space focusing exclusively on money-making opportunities, such as brand enhancement, to the distraction of more promising transformative opportunities, such as leveraging its connective power for movement-building. We agreed that the CSR-social media connection needs to balance its business case with its change agency.

Measuring financial or social return on investment remains elusive, however. In the "How to Calculate the ROI of Social Media" panel, "the panelists could not give one compelling business reason for the return on investment in using social networking tools," said Joe. "Many of my colleagues are trying to measure the amount of time and effort to expend on this new technology, and that's why we went. We left the meeting with an empty feeling about the content, with this question unanswered…"

Unfortunately, the BSR Conference agenda failed to include web 2.0 explicitly, but the topic kept percolating up nonetheless. In the "CSR Reporting: Outside the Print Margins" session, Ray Homan of SAP echoed the oft-repeated sentiment from the conference that sustainability is getting embedded into core business strategy - thanks largely to the reporting process as a means of discovering the value of sustainability. Might web 2.0 drive deeper sustainability/strategy integration? Homan views web 2.0 as an "evolving" realm where we will see "much, much change over the next five years - and I'm not just talking about the report, but all the [stakeholder] communication that takes place in the progress from the last time we reported to the next time."

In the "Sustainability Solutions" session, Diane Melley described how IBM used crowdsourcing in the form of global "mini-jams," using technology that enables tens of thousands of people can come online to discuss the future of the company, which led to the development of the company's Smarter Planet strategy. "It was kind of a culture shock to the company to say that we're going to set our agenda based on what the outside world says," Melley said. Spotlighting this dynamic, IBM partnered with USAID to host the "Jamming for International Development" reception on "crowdsourcing the best ideas in business and sustainable development," exemplifying the use of web 2.0 to solve social issues.

This week, I'm benefiting from social media to follow the SRI in the Rockies Conference from the comforts of home. I got a tweet from Sanford Lewis of the Investor Environmental Health Network announcing that the SEC released a Bulletin directing the staff to allow shareholder resolutions on financial risks related to social and environmental issues facing companies. A few moments later, the #srir09 Twitter feed crackled with tweets from Jonas Kron of Trillium Asset Management on a session where Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO called the bulletin a "big victory" and Smeeta Ramarathnam of SEC Commissioner Aguilar's office called it a "reversal" of prior staff decisions.

Kudos for the best tweet from goes to Gil Friend again for passing along a comment from keynoter Auden Schendler of Aspen Skiing Company: "If you can insulate your home so well that you can heat it by making love, you're doing something right."

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