Can corporate responsibility be fully and successfully integrated into business units or will CSR always be a separate role?
By Tim Mohin
Editor's Note: Tim Mohin’s new book: Changing Business From the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations has been heralded as "the ultimate insider's guide, from someone who has been at the front lines of corporate change-making at some of the world's biggest companies" (Joel Makower, publisher of GreenBiz.com), and an "essential reading for anyone who wants to build a meaningful career" (Aron Cramer, CEO, Business for Social Responsibility).
Because of an enthusiastic response to a recent news release introducing the book – with multiple queries coming in and shares across social media channels – Mohin has agreed to answer some of the questions he received from CSRwire readers and the students of the Applied Corporate Responsibility Class at Harvard University, one of the first cohorts to read the book, in a blog series on Talkback.
Through these blogs, Mohin will attempt to demystify the field of CSR and sustainability and offer bite size tips and lessons from his experience for current and aspiring CSR professionals.
In Part 1, Tim takes on a question from Stijin van Zon, a student from Harvard University’s Applied Corporate Responsibility Course, about whether the ideal end goal for the CSR department is to put themselves out of jobs.
Is it your job as the CSR department to "put yourselves out of business"? Can corporate responsibility (in due time) be fully and successfully integrated into business units themselves or will there always be a separate role?
I get this question a lot and, candidly, there is an active debate around this point within the CSR community. Many of the CSR practitioners I know and respect feel that their ultimate success is to no longer be needed by their companies. In essence, they see themselves as evangelists for CSR and once everyone is “converted,” they can go do something else.
But I take the opposite view.
Currently, the CSR profession is still being defined and there are more – not fewer – jobs opening up in this field. In addition, the top titles for these roles are continuing to increase in number. It is becoming more and more common today to encounter VP, SVP and CSO (chief sustainability officer) titles within large companies. This trend is fairly new, and certainly not an indicator of a field on the decline.
To understand why CSR leaders are needed though you need to understand why companies are interested in CSR in the first place.
As Milton Friedman said, "Businesses must act in their own self-interest to maximize profits." What we are beginning to understand is that societal benefits are a central aspect of a company’s self-interest. The pivotal 2011 article “Creating Shared Value” by Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer of Harvard University clearly articulates this paradigm shift:
“Companies…remain trapped in an outdated approach to value creation that has emerged over the past few decades. They continue to view value creation narrowly, optimizing short-term financial performance in a bubble while missing the most important customer needs and ignoring the broader influences that determine their longer-term success.
How else could companies overlook the wellbeing of their customers, the depletion of natural resources vital to their businesses, the viability of key suppliers, or the economic distress of the communities in which they produce and sell?”
As the shared value perspective begins to take root within business, companies are looking for people with experience working at the nexus of business and environmental or social issues -- people who can help guide their business toward outcomes that benefit the company as well as society. These are the careers that I write about in my book.
CSR may be on the upswing now, but the argument is that eventually it will become incorporated into all business functions, making the CSR profession superfluous. While this is a very bright view of the future, I believe that it is unrealistic.
Unless someone is in charge of CSR, these issues are easily forgotten.
Businesses run lean. There are few corporate employees that will tell you that they have a lot of extra time on their hands. Typically, achieving their goals and competing for advancement, or just to avoid being downsized or outsourced, is enough to fill a 60-hour week. While we would like to think that every job should incorporate sustainability values, the reality is that most folks just don’t have the bandwidth or the knowledge.
A good analogy is the quality movement that started in the 1980s. At the time, American manufacturers were concerned that Japanese companies were able to produce very high quality goods at much lower costs. Motivated by a clear competitive threat, many companies launched new quality departments and began to train their employees on processes to improve quality. Thirty years later, these departments and processes are still in place – perhaps stronger than ever.
The reason: corporations understand the value of quality and know that if it is not someone’s job, it’s no one’s job.
The same holds true for the emerging field of CSR. As the intrinsic value of CSR filters into the collective consciousness of the business world, practitioners of CSR will continue to be in demand.
I foresee the field growing; the processes and core competencies getting further defined, and CSR becoming a permanent fixture of the business landscape.
Got a question for Tim? Use the comments section below – or connect with us on Twitter and Facebook -- and he'll answer it in a future blog post on Talkback.