Poking Holes in the Corporate Responsibility Curriculum

In preparation for our upcoming webinar on June 1st on “Building the Corporate Responsibility Profession,” (FREE WEBINAR -- register today!) I met with Nancy Beer Tobin from the Executive Education Department at Georgetown University's McDonough Business School.  She asked me to point out the holes in the Corporate Responsibility (CR) curriculum.  Universities, trade associations, and training organizations have jumped into the CR education space giving us a rich panoply of information, but does it really fulfill on the potential: equipping companies to not just comply with society's mandates but actually lead?

Our June 1st webinar will explore these issues in-depth from multiple perspectives:  the CR practitioner’s (thanks to Kevin Moss of BT and Susan Seutter of Cisco), the CR educator’s (via Nancy Beer Tobin and Georgetown), the up-and-coming CR professional (through Ryan Whisnant, Director of Sustainability for SunGard & 2009 EDF Climate Corps Alumnus), and the media’s (from Vault.com’s Aman Singh).  But as a preview, here are my perspectives on Nancy’s question.  The short answer is no.  The longer answer: the potential exists, but needs refining.

Short answer: no. Longer answer: the potential exists, but needs refining. 
 
I see five holes that need filling:
 
1.     Embedding CR into the core leadership curriculum
2.     Finance for non-finance majors
3.     Responsibility for non-responsibility majors
4.     Responsibility communications skills
5.     An organized body of knowledge and development path
 
Let's take these one at a time…
 
Embedding CR into the Core Leadership Curriculum
Many of us -- including me -- preach to the converted. The people that show up to CR conferences, choose it as a course of study, and participate in associations have already sold themselves on the value of responsibility. We can't lose that core cadre. These professionals have driven CR to the prominent place it has on today's agenda.
 
At the same time, the real challenge in the next phase of CR's maturity lies in making it part of the DNA of business leadership.  CEOs-in-the-making get a steady diet of strategy, finance, legal, and, if lucky, a dollop of ethics and philosophy. Corporate responsibility, though, lives on the balance sheet, invigorates strategy, and can keep you out of court. 
 
As Stephen Jordan from the US Chamber's Business Civic Leadership Center recently pointed out, over 70% of the value of most publicly traded companies shows up as intangibles, as brand equity. Where does that equity come from? The license to operate and the good will society gives to responsible companies. In the hands of a true leader, these skills can transform a business -- not just save it money and keep it out of trouble, but create real competitive advantage and hard shareholder value.
 
Finance for the Non-Finance Major
Now, like I said, we can't lose those hardcore cadres, the CR professionals and advocates that labored to pull CR out of obscurity and put it on the boardroom agenda. Many if not most of these folks, though, did not go to B-school and even those that did likely didn't "major" in finance. So they need the tools, the language, and the skills to “sell” CR to the C-Suite. A significant number of CEOs took a tour as CFO or COO. These are quant-heads with a taste for numbers. It’s an unfair playing field right now.
 
To move CR even higher on the agenda and embed it in strategy, the core cadres need to “speak CFO”. The respected B-schools could play a big part through graduate certificate and other programs of continuous learning, making finance accessible to the non-finance exec and helping them translate CR into hard-dollar terms.
 
Responsibility for Non-Responsibility Majors
While we’re educating the CR professionals, we also need to educate the finance professionals. When I look at the most successful CR programs, they didn’t start out as a business case. They started with a responsibility case – doing the right thing because it was right – that the firm later figured out how to make pay.
 
UPS analyzed their accident data and realized that most of their driver and pedestrian injuries and fatalities occurred during a left-hand turn. So they decided to stop hurting and killing people by eliminating left-hand turns and then figured out how to do it in a way that cut costs, fuel, and time. Wal-Mart came under attack for putting local firms out of business. So they decided to source locally and figured out how to do that in a way that made business sense: reducing inventory, saving fuel, cutting costs.
 
The old economic model said, “let businesses do what they need to do to make money and society will tax them to pay for the damage they cause.” As a born-and-bred capitalist I reject that notion because it’s an inefficient use of capital. Better to raise a generation of leaders who can account for and minimize negative impacts from the beginning so we all get a maximum return on capital.
 
Responsibility Communications Skills
According to our annual CR Best Practices Survey, nearly two-thirds of companies say one or more of their offerings rely on a CR-related message and as Stephen Jordan pointed out, the real value of CR resides in a company’s brand. But tapping into and maximizing that value requires communications. A lot of companies struggle to articulate it. They rely either on marketing and communications professionals who don’t have much CR experience or on CR professionals who don’t have a background in marketing and communications. 
 
A set of “short courses” on how to communicate CR programs would go a long way. Not just the dry details, though. The people writing the annual CR report or trying to incorporate CR messaging into an ad campaign need to make these programs and their impact come alive in the popular imagination.
 
Organized Body of Knowledge and Development Path
A few weeks ago I spoke on a panel at the US Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center's annual conference oncommunity investment. I shared the stage with, among others, IBM's Ann Cramer. Ann pointed out that no one has really codified what constitutes proficiency when it comes to CR. 
 
That's why the CROA has embarked down a path toward professional credentialing. Along the way, we will articulate the definitive body of knowledge: what constitutes proficiency in responsibility. We will also catalog the qualified sources: where to go to get the knowledge and proficiency to be considered competent.
  
With a defined body of knowledge business schools will know what to put into a core CR curriculum. Companies looking to hire executives steeped in responsibility, will know what to look for. And business leaders will have a greater confidence that they speak with authority when they shape the strategies of their firms.
 
Agree with me? Disagree with me? Debate with me at the Commit!Forum where we’ll engage with professionals and business leaders on the future of corporate responsibility and how individuals can ensure Good Business Makes the Difference.
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