CSR Strategy - more than a necessary evil
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has achieved a lot of media focus in the past decade and where some firms are viewing the concept as a necessary evil to conform; other firms are literally riding the wave, by engaging the trend proactively and incorporating CSR in their strategy. Governments, clients, suppliers, NGOs and the media in general are placing more and more demands to sustainability and consequently many firms experience the need to document and attest their CSR efforts. Some have even chosen to include an ethical and/or social statement next to their financial statements. Most experts agree that this development is not just another fad, but that CSR is an aspiring mega trend, which firms must include in their strategic considerations. But how do we get from “a necessary evil” to a potential source of competitive advantage?
Michael E. Porter argues that a clear alignment between existing strategy, business operations and CSR initiatives are paramount to a successful integration and implementation. However, if this is achieved CSR can actually be a profitable add-on instead of just a “necessary cost.” Recent research conducted independently by Harvard Business School and Gallup documents the need, the scope and scale as well as the profitability of CSR initiatives among Danish SMEs. Simultaneously, both surveys convey the fact that the same company segment has concerns about engaging in actual activities as they feel they lack knowledge and information both regarding what they can do, and how they can do it.
One of the more common misconceptions seem to be that firms do not follow up on their CSR initiatives and believe that a “plug & play” solution is adequate. This line of thought can be conceptualized in to general problems: misalignment and lack of documentation.

Misalignment
Although CSR can be applied and engaged from many angles the concept quintessentially rests on perception and recognition. Both are highly subjective matters and this is exactly the reason why CSR is so challenging. Strategically and operationally companies differ in their ambitions; internally employees differ in their values, and externally people, communities, institutions and governments differ in their expectations to the respective businesses. These three different dimensions can be referred to as respectively Identity, Profile and Image (IPI) and illustrated as the figure below.

Figure 1: Image, Profile and Identity matching – (IPI Gap Analysis Model)

Source: Own adaptation based on Universum (Employer Branding Organization)

The individual company’s effort must be based on and aligned across all of these dimensions if the message is to be communicated effectively and with integrity, no matter whether it is directed towards employees, customers, shareholders, organizations etc.
Too many companies are sporadically deploying their CSR efforts on apparently good and reasonable initiatives like donating money to various NGOs or limiting CO2 emissions and saving on the electricity etc. This could be an effective strategy if the individual company can relate these initiatives to its profile, identity and image. Vestas is a good example of this and can actively exploit the public discourse on CO2 emissions, because its’ product actually can prevent or at least limit emissions and because its image is “No. 1 in Modern Energy”. In other words; business activities and CSR policies must be focused on a mutual goal and this enforces the individual dimensions, supports consistency throughout and builds integrity to the company both externally and internally. Essentially this increases the bargaining & sales power towards possible clients and thereby increases the foundation for economic growth & profit.

Documentation and Integration
Companies already engaging in CSR initiatives face another problem. In order for the message to bear any true weight it needs to be both continuous and consistent, no matter whether it is guided towards clients, owners, employees or other stakeholders. This is where documentation and communication comes into the picture. Even if CSR is aligned to activities and across the three dimensions it still has be documented and communicated effectively & consistently. The problem with simply donating money to a cause or a NGO is that it is getting harder to trace the actual impact of the donation. The more a company is able to follow and document its CSR effort, the easier and more trustworthy the message will be.

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Tags: Business, CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility, Strategy

Comment by Ravi Pratap Shahi on September 21, 2008 at 10:48pm
A very good approach for CSR. I would just like to add about the new plants which are being put up in India and developing countries. They should adopt this one or two years before the project is planned to start. This will educate the masses about their policies and plans, and will help them in ackeiving their goal. The local population becomes a fourth factor here.
Comment by Andrew on September 22, 2008 at 6:37am
Peter,

As Ravi said, a very logical approach toward CSR.

You make an interesting comment about corporate donations, and this illustrates one of the key advantages relating to community business partnerships as opposed to mere corporate donations.

Community business partnerships typically involve a very specific set of objectives and outcomes, which allow the company to articulate and demonstrate the actual or anticipated benefits of the partnership in a clear and unambiguous fashion. If executed in a successful fashion therefore, such partnerships can have a considerably greater impact upon a company's reputation than that of mere corporate donations.

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