Corporate Social Responsibility: Serious or Just a Trendy Fad?

Are you a Sceptic or a Convert do you see CSR as an expensive waste of time, a trendy option or a serious business activity?

The eight fad tests:

1. Simple: Fad concepts are easy to understand and communicate and tend to be framed with labels, buzz words, lists and acronyms.

CSR has a fountain of labels and acronyms and this is certainly one of the major downsides in making CSR a serious management tool. During a presentation on CSR to a school, I asked the students to define CSR. Two days of discussion on CSR had opened up more issues than the students could easily summarise. Hence CSR is certainly not easy to understand!

2. Prescriptive: Though a fad’s fundamental ideas might be sound, the need to be simple but prescriptive makes their action points easy to misinterpret or inappro-priately apply.

One thing about CSR is that, although the prescription is a large one, it does not have to be taken all at once and the instructions for its ingestion are usually very clear. But, there is a view about CSR that it cannot, and should not be, over-prescriptive although we have argued before that some legislation is necessary to level the playing field.

3. Falsely encouraging: all kinds of fads are better at raising hopes than delivering results

CSR highlights and gets to grips with major corporate issues. A company focussing on CSR is usually doing so not only because it is convinced of the tenet Doing well by doing good but also because the management is aware of risks highlighted by its stakeholders.

4. One-Size-Fits-All: Fads claim universal relevance, proposing practices that adherents say will apply to almost any industry, organisation or culture.

That CSR can be addressed by any size of company from trans-nationals to SMEs is true. Yet the needs of these companies, as well as the scope for CSR, differ so their CSR engagement has to be tailored accordingly.

5. Easy to Cut-and-Paste: Because fad management ideas must be simple and easy to apply, they’re amenable to partial implementation.

The beauty of CSR is that a company can test the sustainable waters before going for a paddle and way before considering total immersion you can start with partial implementation. But, CSR is a process: two things will ensure that the CSR activity is not tossed aside like a fad: one, the benefits of CSR will kick in (for example, improved recruitment) and second, increased stakeholder engagement will fuel the engine of CSR involvement.

6. In tune with the Zeitgeist: Because fads focus on the concerns of the moment, they tend to apply to a few specific issues rather than addressing the fundamental weakness or soundness of overall business practice.

CSR focuses on modern business weaknesses be they in human resource management, corporate governance or in environmental policy. No one would disagree that each one of these is a key issue: CSR does not duck them. Further, a thorough dialogue with a firm’s stakeholders will draw out all problems and concerns not simply the topical or petty ones.

7. Novel, not radical: their freshness is often superficial, and, as such, fads don’t unduly challenge basic managerial values.

CSR has strong historical roots, whether you look as far back as Greek Ethics or Victorian Corporate Philanthropy, so the concept is hardly novel. CSR does ask awkward questions and argues for change so if the will is there at CEO level then real strategic and sustainable change can take place.

8. Legitimized by Gurus and Disciples: Many fads gain credibility by the status and prestige of their proponents or followers, rather than through empirical evidence.

The fact that governments, universities, businesses, NGOs, and other associations are running with and promoting CSR is a sure sign that there is more substance here than snake oil. Innumerable social reports show faith and speak volumes. There are books by an increasing number of CSR specialists. CSR is also an issue that is increasingly being given an airing in the media.

In their review of fads and management classics, Miller and Hartwick comment that if a management approach shares most of the fad features described here, beware. If it looks too simple to work, it probably is. And if you are still not convinced by this article that CSR is not a fad but a real management tool, then you can base your continuing research on Miller and Hartwick’s closing paragraph:

Does the approach have a track record for performance and measurable outcomes in similar companies facing similar challenges? Does it address problems or opportunities that are high priorities for our company? Are the changes it would require within our company’s capabilities and resources? Yes answers to these questions suggest an approach likely to pay off and endure.

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Author Information

Ivor Hopkins is Director and Partner of MHC International Ltd and is a marketing specialist for CSR Issues.

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