This is Part 1 of a 2-Part write-up on AFCSR 2009, reviewing the CSR conference itself. Part 2, to appear in the January-February 2010 issue of tbl will look at CSR Awards in general and with reference to the Asian CSR Awards 2009, presented at the end of AFCSR 2009.
Manila can hold its own quite well as an international event venue city against more established regional competitors like Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. A vibrant metropolis that also boasts the headquarters of the Asian Development Bank, Manila may not be at the same level as the other Asian cities named in certain areas like its international airport or the service quality of communications services, but it does have an edge over the others in other important respects. For example almost everyone an overseas conference delegate will come across – from event management staff to hotel employees to taxi drivers, understands and speaks English – arguably the world’s predominant language of communication today between people of different nationalities whose native language is not English. The Net may be a lot faster in Bangkok but getting understood the first time round in English by the staff at even some luxurious five-star hotels in the City of Angels can be a rare achievement.
Manila was the venue for the 8th regional Asian Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility, held on November 19 and 20, 2009 and hosted by the Asian Institute of Management/AIM-RVR Center for Corporate Social Responsibility. The 2009 conference carried the theme: Sustaining CSR in Difficult Times and attracted 494 participants from 281 companies and organizations from 22 countries. A sizeable event that culminated in the giving away of the Asian CSR Awards 2009 at a glittering Gala Night, that also featured a well executed sit-down service dinner for some 500 people. Anyone who is in the know of event management will appreciate what a huge challenge just this one aspect of the Gala Night can be.
I have to admit that generally speaking I am somewhat skeptical about the efficacy and even the justifiability of a lot of forums, seminars and conferences that seem to take place all the time. And not irrationally mind you. For a lot of these are so transparently commercial or so farcical that one can only wonder why otherwise seemingly sensible companies and organizations even take part in them. Even such conferences go through the whole gamut of ‘props’ so to speak – keynote speakers, guest of honour, elaborate Power Point presentations, Q&A sessions and so forth, but to what end? Often the theme or subject of the conference has been debated a dozen times before and while speaker after speaker extols action and proposes solutions, all is neatly forgotten at the end of the conference and life carries on as before.
The AFCSR 2009 in Manila was a notable exception. Invited to moderate one of the 25 breakout “Special Interest Sessions”, I was able to experience and evaluate all the proceedings over about two and a half days in some depth. Net conclusion: an extremely useful opportunity for CSR people to obtain new insights, share experiences, acquire important learnings, evaluate best practices and case studies and simply, network with fellow professionals.
Conferences tend to get quite hectic in their activity schedules and AFCSR 2009 too was fast-paced and demanding. One golden rule I always follow when attending conferences is to try and ensure that I am staying at the conference hotel itself. Saves a lot of time and stress, especially when busy conferences allow you hardly 5 free minutes at a stretch at any point in time!
The conference itself was on November 19 and 20, but speakers and moderators had to reach a day earlier for a pre-conference briefing reception, at which they could also preregister and avoid the rush at registration by the delegates the next morning. This was a good idea and the ‘Power Dinner served as a pleasant ice-breaker where moderators could get to know their speakers and discuss their presentations, rules of procedure and so forth.
The next two days had plenary sessions to start off with and then the breakout or special interest sessions. All were efficiently organized and generally speaking the presentations were of superior quality. One of the reasons why I am skeptical of conferences as I have stated earlier is just this. A lot of presentations are little more than recycled verbosity, adding little new knowledge. Meaning-less rhetoric that really does not stimulate thought, leave alone action.
While the presentations at AFCSR 2009 that I managed to attend were thought provoking enough, I did feel that perhaps the number of special interest sessions and hence the number of presentations overall should have been lesser. At an international conference, you must give a presenter more than 20 minutes is what I say. Especially when the conference field – CSR in this case – is so rapidly evolving that any new thought presented, must be allowed to be espoused in some depth.
There were a fair number of presentations covering topics that are quite relevant to our times and hence of high interest to CSR people. CSR and poverty alleviation, the challenges and pitfalls for implementing a large CSR related project in a public private partnership, integrating CSR Into core business strategy and plans and CSR and the supply chain are all areas that are highly significant both for the corporate sector and for the growth of CSR practices. To the credit of the presenters I have to say that they managed to say a fair bit in the 20 minutes or so that they were each allowed, but as I said, perhaps what was needed was more time per speaker and lesser topics, so that these vital CSR themes could be presented and discussed in greater depth.
There are a number of factors that spell success for a large conference. Besides the obvious ones like slick event management, quality of speakers and presentations and an interesting programme, there are other more subtle aspects that can make the vital difference. Primary amongst these and something that is often overlooked by conference organizers is the quality of the participants or delegates. Many conferences fill up the rows with disinterested or subject unrelated people, who are there either because they have been nominated or even forced by their organizations to be the official representatives, or because they have some agenda of their own which they hope to achieve at that particular event. Then there are those who go to conferences to try and rub shoulders with the high and mighty who they know will be there, while still others are even more focused – conferences, especially in five star hotels, mean a good meal!
So I would argue that a conference can really buzz if the participants or delegates are seriously interested in and committed to the conference subject. Further, beyond even serious interest, if the delegates are knowledgeable about the subject matter and are hands-on practitioners, then you have a conference that is alive and purposeful every minute of its duration. And so it was with AFCSR 2009. While one obviously did not and could not interact with each and every one of the about 500 delegates, one did meet and talk to a fairly large number of them originating from China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam and of course Philippines itself. And each interaction was refreshing and value additive in some respect. I attribute this to the fact that all the delegates were people actively involved in CSR in various ways – as corporate CSR programme managers, consultants, researchers, academics, specialized media reporters and even as beneficiaries of CSR interventions.
I suppose one can say that this level of stimulation is present in most professional conferences where ‘like-minded’ people are present, like doctors or architects or financial sector gurus and so forth, but I believe this conference of CSR professionals or advocates had a higher degree of motivation owing to the innately passionate nature of the subject, CSR itself.
Further, perhaps one can even go on to say that unlike conferences of some other professionals, there was no sense of competition or the play of egos amongst the participants. Most delegates were as keen to talk about others experiences and take away learnings as they were to talk about their own stories and projects.
The Forum culminated on the second night with the Asian CSR Awards, in which 211 entries from 132 companies from 14 countries were received. Awards were given out in 6 categories and the Awards evening was a well orchestrated affair, with a high level of camaraderie, anticipation and excitement. Smoothly executed, it was a befitting end to a conference that in my estimate benefitted everyone who participated in it.