Why Transparency May Not Be Best in Facilitating Corporate responsibility

By Patrick Haack & Dennis Schoeneborn.

Corporate Responsibility (CR) has become an increasingly important issue for business firms across the globe. Yet, implementing and embedding CR tends to be costly. Accordingly, it is tempting for firms to “greenwash” existing business practices with CR policies, reports, and fancy brochures – but without adopting these policies in a substantive way (i.e. what would mean an in-depth implementation in business practices and procedures).

In the same context, corporate transparency is typically seen as the key to make sure that firms would adopt CR practices in substantive form. In contrast, other scholars have argued that a certain degree of intransparency (or opacity) can be beneficial for the adoption of organizational practices. The argument here is that freedom from scrutiny provides space for decision makers to experiment with new CR practices and consider how to implement those practices. This leeway for experimentation, in turn, can then lead to a substantive institutionalization of CR practices – if compared to a more strict transparency regime (that would impede the occurrence of such dynamics to begin with).

In a recent simulation-based study (as part of a larger research project with Dr. Dirk Martignoni, University of Lugano), we demonstrate that a certain degree of hypocrisy and greenwashing, counter-intuitively, can be beneficial to the industry-wide adoption of CR practices. In our study, we explain differences in the ceremonial (i.e. superficial) vs. substantive (i.e. in-depth) adoption of CR practices in an industry with changes of “evaluation regimes” (i.e. degree to which implementation of CR practices are visible to outsiders).
In particular, we look at two evaluation regimes – transparency and opacity – and three levels of adoption – non-adoption, ceremonial adoption, and or substantive adoption. We assume that the evaluation regime can remain stable or switch, due to regulatory changes or industry dynamics. Of the four different possible sequences of evaluation regimes, we pay particular attention to the situation where there is little visibility at first (opacity) followed by greater visibility (transparency), and explore the conditions under which this particular sequence maximizes the prospects of substantive adoption.

Our study’s findings challenge conventional views that a coercive approach focused on the strict enforcement of transparency and accountability would be most effective to the institutionalization of CR practices. To the contrary, our study suggests that, given certain conditions, an initial period of opacity followed by a switch to a more transparent regime can maximize the in-depth adoption of CR practices.
One important practical implication for non-governmental organizations and other critical observers of corporate actions is that a certain degree of greenwashing, at least in the beginning of a CR implementation and learning process, should not be condemned prematurely. Instead, it would be conducive to the institutionalization of CR to steadily maintain and slowly increase pressure towards more transparency – in order to facilitate “ratcheting up” effects toward more substantive CR adoption among players in the same industry.

Please find here a more extensive summary of the article.

Read the original paper:
The paper has won the 2015 Best Paper Award of the Social Issues in Management Division of the Academy of Management. While the paper is currently in a review process, a shorter version can be accessed here. Haack, P. & Schoeneborn D. (2015). Exploring the Institutionalization of Corporate Responsibility: A Formal Modeling Approach. Academy of Management Proceedings, doi: 10.5465/AMBPP.2015.141

Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Business Ethics in the Strategy Department at HEC Lausanne, Switzerland. Dennis is Professor at the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at Copenhagen Business School.
Pic by Pexels

Towards More Humanly Sustainable Workplaces

By Dr. Blagoy Blagoev.

There are more and more prominent voices calling for management research and practice to focus on the ‘grand challenges’ faced by society. Undoubtedly, one of those grand challenges most talked about is sustainability. Usually, sustainability is thought about in ecological terms. Indeed, a plethora of well-known issues exist at the interface between business and the natural environment, such as CO2 emissions or water pollution to name but a few. Increasingly, corporations are faced with pressing social demands to manage and organize in sustainable ways in order to prevent such problems from happening in the first place. Yet, another, much less talked about dimension is the human side of sustainability.

Breaking the extra-long hours regime in management consulting

The human side of business sustainability refers us to the problems at the interface between organizations and people, in particular, to the potentially harmful impact certain management practices can have on employees and their families. One, especially harmful development in many workplaces concerns the proliferation of extra-long hours regimes among highly qualified professional and knowledge workers. Many such workers seemingly voluntarily accept to work between 60 and 120 hours a week, remain connected to work through smartphones and laptops, and continue to do so even after experiencing severe work-induced bodily breakdowns. Such ‘extreme’ working time regimes have been shown to be detrimental to both individuals and their organizations: they harm employees’ health, productivity and creativity; reproduce gender inequality; and generate higher employee turnover rates and increasing cost for attracting and retaining highly qualified personnel. In short, in the long term, they create an unsustainable workplace environment. Yet, despite such well-known drawbacks, little progress has been made with dismantling extra-long hours regimes and building more humanly sustainable workplaces. Most work-life balance and family friendliness initiatives do not work.

Extra-long hours regimes persist. Why so?

In my doctoral dissertation, I studied the genesis and historical evolution of an extra-long working hours regime at an elite management consulting firm in Germany in order to answer this question. My empirical investigation demonstrated the historical contingency of the extra-long hours regime: Rather than being pre-given, it only emerged out of a strategic shift at the firm that occurred in the late 1980s. I discovered that the main reason underlying the persistence of long working hours at this firm could be found within the distinct self-reinforcing dynamics triggered by this shift. Over time, these dynamics had constituted and continued to maintain an ecology of complementary and mutually reinforcing management practices, business strategies and cultural norms that were all adjusted to and reinforced the extra-long hours regime. The dynamic spread throughout the entire organization and even beyond: It entangled the consulting firm’s clients too.

The way forward: re-thinking the „work-life balance“ approach

The results of my research imply that the dominant ‘work-life balance’ approach of dealing with such problems of human sustainability needs to be fundamentally reconsidered in at least two ways.

First, building humanly sustainable workplaces is a matter of radical and strategic rather than incremental and operative change. At least in the case of consulting firms, the extra-long working hours pattern cannot be isolated from the plethora of organizational practices, cultural norms and the overarching strategy that have historically co-evolved with it. Simply providing work-life initiatives, such as part-time work of flexible working hours, without attempting to change the entire organizational ecology intertwined with reproducing the extra-long hours regime is not likely to achieve much success. Understanding and breaking the logic of the dynamics that maintain this ecology is crucial for change initiatives to succeed.

Second, and related, we need to widen the traditional focus on internal organizational change. In my research, the dynamics in question went beyond the boundaries of the single firm and entangled client organizations as well. This implies that changing the extra-long working hours regime would also require shifts in the interaction pattern between professional service providers and their clients and the various expectations that structure these interactions.

Key is to change the reproducing dynamics of unsustainable workplaces

Dismantling persistent regimes of extra-long working hours remains one of the key challenges for building humanly sustainable workplaces. Whereas previous research has focuses on criticizing such regimes and suggesting alternatives, we are only now beginning to understand the actual mechanisms that are at work to maintain extra-long working hours. The emergent research findings clearly demonstrate that human sustainability cannot be achieved by providing work-life benefits to compensate for an otherwise humanly unsustainable workplace environment. Rather, the key lies in changing the entire web of interdependent organizational practices, norms and strategies and the dynamics that reproduce such workplace environments.

Blagoy is a post-doctoral scholar at the Department of Management, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany and research fellow at  the Governing Responsible Business Research Environment at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. In his doctoral thesis, he employed a path-dependence lens to study the mechanisms underlying the persistence of excessive working hours regimes in management consulting firms. His research focuses on overwork in professional service firms, organizational change and persistence, and time and temporality in organizations.

Pic by Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr

The Dark Side of Transparency

By Lars Thøger Christensen.

Transparency is essentially about creating insight into organizational and institutional practices in order to allow for critique, stimulate improvement and hold politicians and decision makers accountable. As such, transparency is an essential dimension of a rational, open and democratic society. Without transparency, there is great potential for manipulation, negligence and fraud. Yet, transparency may itself be manipulative. Even when the intention is to disclose and stimulate insight, the results may be less benign. Whenever something is illuminated and pulled out for further inspection, something else remains in the dark.

Any serious pursuit of transparency needs to consider what the pursuit itself is doing to public insight, what it “hides” so to speak and what remains out of view.

Part of this problem resides in the way we understand transparency. While openness and insight may be the ultimate goals, it is commonplace to define transparency in more prosaic terms, for example as information provision. With oceans of information available at our fingertips, the world certainly appears far more transparent than ever before. Yet, accurate information about complex issues, such as sustainability or social responsibility, is usually not easy to digest. Most information about such matters, thus, is often accessible only to experts. And whenever it is made accessible to lay people, it has been subjected to multiple processes of editing and simplification.

No information speaks for itself and attempts to make it “speak” hide as much as it disclose.

Another problem concerns the organizational behavior we hope to see and understand better through practices of transparency. If we think that organizations and decision makers continue to conduct business as usual when subjected to increased transparency, we are utterly wrong. Transparency is not a neutral tool that simply illuminates a preexisting world. When people in organizations know that their talk, decisions and actions are publicly accessible, they are less inclined to experiment, take chances, share ideas, or talk freely about their accomplishments, ideals, assessments and aspirations. This is the case in numerous organizational processes, including meetings, bargaining games, conflict resolutions, idea generation, etc. where the need to withhold some information and protect identities or strategic positions are often important concerns. In such cases, the willingness to share complete and accurate information may be limited and replaced by a desire to “send the right signals” or make the right impressions.

Transparency may cause organizational members to hold back or otherwise adjust behavior.

As a result, we may see less than we think. Even when transparency is enforced by rules and regulations, like for example social responsibility reporting in some countries, participants have a tendency to alter and edit their behaviours in ways that conform to social norms and expectations (i.e. by creating a “front”). Organizational behaviour is certainly not unaffected by increased transparency demands. Thus, we know that organisations carefully select, simplify, and summarize data before they are revealed, that they selectively disclose or leak information, for example through competitive signalling and they shrewdly manage the timing of disclosure, sometimes with the intention of deflecting critique or handling potential issues. Moreover, producers and custodians of data often shift the medium, the classification scheme, or the level of comparisons when forced to share information that used to be confidential.

Demands for more transparency are likely to be handled strategically by organizations.

None of this is to suggest that transparency should be avoided or reduced. Quite the contrary. But it is a reminder that transparency ideals and practices are shaping organizations in dramatic ways and that our desire for more transparency needs to include a desire to know its limitations.

Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor of Communication and Organization at the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at Copenhagen Business School.

Pics by Roland Molnár and I Want a Poster, Flickr

America, what now? Drawing Up a New Social Contract

By Thomas A. Kochan.

The recent US election exposed two major intersecting fault lines in America: the deep divisions across racial, ethnic, and gender groups and the feeling of being left behind by the economic forces at work resulted in pervasive anger and frustration and gave room for hate crimes across the country. If left neglected, this situation could soon shift to produce an era of social and economic turmoil that could make the Arab Spring look mild in comparison.

The key to break the pattern, as this article will explore, is in mobilizing all sectors of society  to create good quality jobs and get wages moving upward again for all groups. In short, America needs a new social contract attuned to the needs of today’s workforce and economy that is, once again, based on mutual respect.

America’s social contract broke down in the 1980s and the failure to replace it is a root cause of the wage stagnation, anger, and political divisions the election campaigns brought to the fore. With the election of Donald Trump and a Republican majority in Congress, we should suffer no illusions that the process of building a new one will be led from Washington, reaching for the goal to ‚Make America Great Again‘.

Laboratories for Democracy

However, this does not mean progress can’t be made via a different route. Indeed, history shows that most social and economic shifts don’t begin with a national policy, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously indicated: When treating stated as our “laboratories for democracy”, they function as places where innovations and social movements are born and tested for their ability to address emerging tensions. Ideally, those tensions turn into national policies before they escalade and explode.

In fact, groundwork to America’s last social contract was laid by workers themselves. In the first few decades of the 20th century, Sidney Hillman, then the leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, organized immigrants and developed the basic principles of collective bargaining. Around the same time, women like Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt led the suffragettes movement to get women the right to vote.

With the help of Professor John R. Commons, who has been called the intellectual father of the New Deal, and his students of the University of Wisconsin, state level innovations had been shaped, leading to states like Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and New York enact unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and overtime protections. He and his students went to Washington to assist President Roosevelt write the innovations into the national laws that helped end the Great Depression. In turn, that laid the foundation to spread new wage norms through collective bargaining that succeeded in moving wages up in tandem with productivity to achieve an expanding middle class.

Now that the old social contract ultimately broke down, it is time to begin the long process of building a new one fitted to today’s economy, workforce, and society.  The good news is we are once again seeing substantial innovations in workplaces, local and state government, businesses and education settings that, if accelerated and expanded, could identify the key features of a new social contract.

The Workforce is leading the way

Grassroots initiatives are on the rise, and with the help of labor organizations, community coalitions, and what we might call worker centered entrepreneurs, achievements like the “Fight for 15″ are made possible. In this labor movement, the Service Employees International Union and a community coalition in Seattle have now induced another eighteen states to increase their minimum wages by varying degrees.

These developments pressured low wage companies like Walmart, McDonalds, and the Gap to increase entry level wages above the required minimum. IKEA has even gone a step further in committing to meeting objective standards for paying a “living wage” in all its locations.

Other new worker advocacy groups like Coworkers.org are using information campaigns and social media and other technology-aided apps to induce companies like Starbucks to reform scheduling practices to provide more advance notice and certainty over work schedules.

Unions and worker centers around the country are working together with immigrant groups to enforce their labor rights and protest wage theft (failure to pay minimum wages or overtime) while opening up their apprenticeships to more women, minorities, and immigrants and supporting efforts to promote “common sense” economic strategies that provide good entry level jobs and career ladders.

Lastly, a number of entrepreneurial tech-ventures are starting up around the country. One of those is Workers’ lab, a start-up incubator helping workers to leverage technology and platform-based strategies as a means to build bargaining power. Out of these and yet to be invented strategies might just come the next generation tech-savvy, grass roots labor movement.

How can business help?

Business leaders are slowly beginning to get the message that the era of prioritizing shareholders over all else may be coming to an end. The intense focus on maximizing short term shareholder value might account for one of the principle reasons the old Social Contract broke down.

The good news is there is growing consensus that this needs to change. No one less than J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said last summer that he would raise his employees’ wages because doing so is a good long term investment. He and his peers should apply the same logic advising their clients. By encouraging long-term investing, they could help end the short-termism that has held back corporations from investing in the workforce training and research and development that are so essential to job creation.

Wall Street could also help lead the way and perhaps in concert with labor by creating infrastructure funds that will generate a good rate of return for their investors and for the economy. Business, labor, economists and President-elect Trump, recognize the need and value of repairing the nation’s infrastructure. This constitutes a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the power of bipartisanship, public-private partnerships, and business-labor cooperation.

Some main street business leaders are already doing their part by competing on the basis of high productivity and high wage strategy. Research evidences both good profits and the creation and support of good jobs for American workers. This type of employers emphasise the importance of collaborating with labor and workforce partners.

The role of education

In today’s knowledge based economy, education leaders need to be counted as among the key stakeholders critical to building and sustaining a new social contract.

They and some philanthropic leaders active in funding education innovations are embracing what evidence tells us: There is nothing more important to educational attainment than a good teacher.  And in states as Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Illinois, teacher unions and education leaders are working together as partners to expand learning time, support teacher development, encourage online courses and helping workers refresh their skills in a fast-changing wold. These efforts should be extended across the country.

If knowledge is power, then these educational innovations will equip today and tomorrow’s workforce with the tools they need to meet the challenges they are bound to experience over the course of their careers.

Seeds of a new social contract

What’s needed next is to bring these different stakeholder groups together to learn about what is working and how successful innovations can inform national policy makers.

Here at MIT, we are doing exactly that. Our efforts are meant unite innovation leaders and stimulate research, share experience and come up with solutions based on learning that are meant to be diffused.
Together with the Hitachi Foundation, we have started a “Good Companies-Good Jobs Initiative” that is supporting efforts to improve relations and better manage and resolve workplace conflicts.  As we expand our efforts, we hope to serve as a catalyst for further innovation that will show the nation’s leaders what a new social contract might look like.

But more than anything else, we all should continue to encourage local activism, protest, and innovation. It may take a serious eruption of the now visible fissures to generate positive action in Washington.

Thomas A. Kochan is a Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Co-Director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research where he teaches an online course on the future of work. He is author of Shaping the Future of Work:  What Future Worker, Business, Government and Education Leaders Need to do for all to Prosper. He is on Twitter.

Pic by Annette Bernhardt, Flickr

The Impact of Impact: Learning experience from the UK

By Mark Learmonth.

Who are we talking to when we write our articles?  Does our research make any difference to the world ‘out there’, or are we talking exclusively to fellow academics? The UK government has taken the line that too often academics have simply been talking to one another in their research papers. So they are actively encouraging us to try and make our work matter outside academia, and now measure the impact of our work officially. In this measurement exercise, impact is defined as: “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” Indeed, institutions are now being rewarded (both in cash and in increased reputation) for being able to demonstrate this kind of impact on the world. Here’s my own personal take on some of the key debates.

The Research Excellence Framework

Impact was measured for the first time as part of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the UK-wide system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. The REF is an assessment which: “provides accountability for public investment in research and produces evidence of the benefits of this investment … [it also provides] benchmarking information and establishes reputational yardsticks, for use within the higher education sector and for public information”. This means, among other things, that the quality of the research conducted in each institution – and within their different schools and departments – can all be ranked against one another using a common metric. My business school in Durham, for instance, came 20th out of the 100 and odd business schools in the UK. In other words, REF matters, and it matters a lot! Impact was a significant factor – counting for 20% of our overall score. One of the implications of REF mattering so much is that everything must be officially defined in great detail – including what counts as impact.

The impact of red-tape

I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the regulations.  It’s enough to say that the way impact was measured was through schools producing case studies that had to be written according to pre-defined criteria. A key issue was to be able to demonstrate convincingly that the “effect change or benefit” we were claiming for our research was in fact linked directly to the research. This was no easy task, given how multi-faceted any such change is likely to be. Even when, in common-sense terms, research had clearly had an impact, we could not always make out story fit into the formal requirements set out for impact case studies.

The impact of impact

It is interesting to reflect on the cultural changes that the UK’s experiment with impact (and there are certainly no plans to abandon it) may have brought about. The worst effects of the nay-sayers have not come to pass.  Even though impact counts for 20% of overall REF scores, the case study format (for all its faults) has at least meant that, in practice, only a relatively small handful of research articles need to have had impact in order for schools still to score highly. So, at least as far as the REF is concerned, blue-skies research can continue much as before.  Furthermore, the recent Stern Review, an evaluation of REF 2014, has recommended significantly broadening the criteria used to measure impact in order to address some of the acknowledged difficulties with the current approach.  And although some academics remain cynical about the whole issue, most of us are buying in to the agenda, at least to some extent.  After all, does anyone really want to conduct research that never influences anything (other than, perhaps, getting a handful of other academics to agree with us)? I, along with most of my colleagues, now have a section on our curriculum vitae headed “impact” in which we suggest how our research might matter to the wider world.

Would I recommend “impact” for Denmark?   

Personally, I’ve changed my views about impact since 2009. Like a lot of other academics, I’m naturally suspicious of governments imposing anything on us. Still, overall, I am now pretty positive about the impact of impact. The doomsday scenarios about the end of blue-skies work and neo-liberal appropriation have not come about. And on a more positive note, the impact agenda has helpfully raised the question of why we do the work we do, and made us think about who might be interested in it. I now find myself turning some of my academic articles into blogs for a general audience, in part, as a potential “pathway” to impact. Here’s an example. So, as long as it’s done sensitively and in consultation with the academic community, I don’t think you have much to fear about the impact of impact were something similar ever to be introduced in Denmark.

Mark Learmonth is Professor of Organisation Studies/Deputy Dean (Research) at Durham University Business School. He spent the first 17 years of his career in management posts within the British National Health Service. Prior to taking up his post in Durham he has worked at the universities of Nottingham and York. You can follow him on Twitter.

Pic: own

The CEO President

By Dan Kärreman.

President Trump is going to be different. So far most of the commentary has been focused on him as a trailblazer for white nationalism and populism, and for his unique personal qualities. This is understandable, since the marriage between white nationalism and populism was dissolved in 1964 in the USA when the Democratic party finally took a long hard look on its racist past and decided to become the party of civil rights, thus fracturing the mix of white supremacy and New Deal policies that had ruled the South since the implementation of the New Deal. And as for president Trumps personal qualities… let’s say that we can expect unorthodox and colorful commentary on that front for the next four years.

Can Trump’s business habitus compensate for a lack of experience in government & politics?

One aspect of Trump that has been overlooked is that he has no previous experience of government and politics. To the extent it has been an issue, Trump has largely managed to make this a point that has worked to his advantage as it has given him credibility in claiming that he is not part of the (corrupt) establishment. His celebrity has also compensated for the lack of name recognition that normally would hamstring the outsider candidate. But his lack of experience of government and politics is likely to have a profound effect on how he will operate as a president.

On the other hand, Trump has considerable experience of being a business president. He has worked a business executive for more than 35 years. In Bourdieuan terms, this is his habitus. Being a business executive is different (but not completely different) from being a politician. It is worthwhile to have a closer look on what we can expect from a business executive.

Authoritarian, KPI-driven and delegating responsibility

First, executives run on hierarchy. As an executive, it is a given that you have say-so in your domain. Operationally, this is perhaps not different from politicians who also mostly work in hierarchical arrangements. However, as a politician in a liberal democracy you must internalize the idea that you represent a constituency and at least pay lip service to the fact that power comes from the people. Not so for an executive, where power comes from the guy above you in the hierarchy. Fact is that executives are not only comfortable in authoritarian set-ups, they thrive on it. The authoritarian aspect of Trump’s persona is perhaps the most grating one for the political class, where such tendencies are expected to be suppressed. They are unlikely to be troubling for most of the electorate though, since most people interact more frequently and more comfortably with executives than with politicians in everyday life.

Second, executives are driven by a narrow set of key performance indicators. The indicators can be played to some extent but they are also real in the sense that they operate as grading mechanisms for performance. Expect Trump to identify a narrow set of deliverables that he will insist to be evaluated upon. The most likely candidates are immigration (or rather deportation), trade, nominating socially conservative judges for the supreme court and infrastructure spending. Having said that, Trump is probably open for negotiation on this point. He does not appear to be particularly ideological (apparently, he has changed his party affiliation 5 times the last 15 years) but he would insist to have indicators that makes it possible to claim success. Success is very important for executives.

Third, executives delegate. This goes beyond the idea of the fact that it is impossible to be experts on everything. Executives are strong believers in the division of labor, in fact the whole idea of an executive is built on division of labor, and are comfortable in pushing out responsibility to subordinates. Delegation offers possibility for subordinates to prove themselves and to further their careers, thus creating bonds of loyalty between executives and subordinates. Politicians delegate too, but the career aspect of delegation is less pronounced. Politicians delegate to increase representativeness and to invite expert commentary. Put bluntly, executives delegate for reasons of expediency while politicians delegate for reasons of deliberation.

A Business presidency

Overall, we can expect a presidency that will work more like a business presidency than the typical political presidency. The authoritarian aspects of the business president are likely to be an ongoing source of frustration, since the US presidency in actual reality is a weak office with a lot of checks and balances (foreign policy is an exception but Trump does not seem very interested in this area). The importance of projecting success is likely to make the Trump presidency prone to unpredictable policy shifts. Finally, the promotion of expediency will open for a lot of semi-scandals and crypto-grafting since it promotes a potent but problematic mix of loyalty, initiative and patronage, qualities that sits uneasily with the ethos of public government.

Dan Kärreman is Professor in Organization and Management Studies at the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at Copenhagen Business School. He is on Twitter.

Pic by Steve Baker, Flickr

UN Global Compact Silently Expels More than 2,300 Non-Business Participants

By Andreas Rasche.

The UN Global Compact continues to “clean up” its participant base. The initiative reported to have 5,332 non-business participants (e.g., global and local NGOs and associations) in its October Bulletin, while its November Bulletin lists 2,983 active non-business participants. Hence, the Compact seems to have expelled more than 2,300 non-business participants for failure to submit the required “Communication on Engagement” report in the beginning of November. This is almost 43% of all non-business participants.

Non-Business Participants Delisted After Three Years

According to the Compact’s own “Communication on Engagement” policy, all non-business participants must submit a report every two years. The policy came into effect 31 October 2013. If participants do not submit such a report, they are labeled as “non-communicating” participants for another year. In other words, non-business participants that fail to submit a report are delisted after three years.

The Compact understands itself as a business-driven initiative, which, however, has clear links to NGOs, associations and also labor organizations. Non-business participants are vital actors, especially when considering the role of partnerships (SDG 17) and the general need for collaboration between business and society. Expelling more than 2,300 participants significantly undercuts the ability of the Compact to initiate and sustain such partnerships on a broader level.

Delisting as an Opportunity and a Problem

The delisting of non-communicating NGOs is a welcome move. It shows that the Compact takes its own integrity measures seriously and hence strengthens the accountability of the initiative. In the long run, the Compact will only thrive if businesses, NGOs, and, most of all, governments, trust it. And trust, as we all know, is not cheap; it must be earned over time.

However, this massive delisting also points to a significant problem: The Compact seems to rely too much on “growth by numbers.” Simply having over 5,300 non-business participants is useless, if 2,300 of them do not even dare to submit a rather basic report that outlines their activities in support of the initiative. I have said it before, and I will say it again: The Compact is too good of an idea to simply throw away. However, the value proposition of the initiative seems to remain opaque to most participants. The high number of delisted business participants (now reaching 7,500) and the impressive number of 2,300 delisted non-business participants (most of them being NGOs) question the “business model” that underlies the initiative. It may be time to rethink this model.

What Bothers Me Most is…

What bothers me most about all of this is: the Compact itself has not yet mentioned this massive delisting with a single word in its News section (as of 21 November 2016). Is such a massive loss of participants not a newsworthy event? We can read about all sorts of success stories in the News section, but the fact that the initiative expelled more than 2,300 non-business participants is not mentioned with a single word. The Compact itself promotes transparency (e.g. through Principle 10 on anti-corruption) and it should live up to its own ambitions by painting a fair and timely picture of the initiative. There is no reason to be ashamed of having to delist a high number of non-business participants, if the Compact learns the right lessons from this. No initiative is perfect and the Compact has come a long way. It has helped to mainstream corporate responsibility and sustainability, but it may also be in need of rethinking what value it creates for its participants…

Andreas Rasche is Professor at Copenhagen Business School and Director of CBS’s World Class Research Environment Governing Responsible Business. He has collaborated with the UN Global Compact on different projects and served on the initiative’s LEAD Steering Committee from 2012 to 2015. More information on: www.arasche.com

Pic by emilydickinsonridesabmx

Sustainable Business Model Research –Time to Leave the Twilight Zone

By Dr. Florian Lüdeke-Freund.

Research on sustainable business models, or “business models for sustainability (BMfS)”, is still a niche topic in both the business model and sustainability communities. BMfS researchers often find themselves in a twilight zone, not knowing whom to address with or involve in their research. After one decade of BMfS research, it is time to develop a joint agenda to strengthen and shape this interdisciplinary field.

Leaving the Twilight Zone

Looking at seminal articles, we see that early work on BMfS deals with organisational and cultural preconditions of business models that contribute to corporate sustainability. Analysing business models is also seen as a means to overcome the technology bias of traditional eco-innovation approaches and move towards system level innovation, e.g. through product-service systems. Others see business models as tools to re-scale and re-localise monolithic industrial infrastructures, while again others investigate the links between business models and business success through corporate sustainability. Research on BMfS is often rooted in ecological sustainability, but some scholars see BMfS also as a means to address social issues.

These perspectives and topics clearly show that we need multiple disciplines, theories and methods to properly study BMfS. But reviewing the BMfS literature, which we have done in different projects and articles (Boons & Lüdeke-Freund, 2013; Schaltegger et al., 2016; Lüdeke-Freund et al., 2016), shows that we, as BMfS researchers, tend to talk to our “sustainability peers” only, in terms of how we frame and work on research problems and the journals we publish in. At the same time we are sitting somewhere in between. We are neither pure management scholars nor ecological economics veterans. We are in a twilight zone.

After one decade of BMfS research, it is time to step back and reflect on the topics we have studied, the theories we have used and developed, and the methods we have applied. We should ask ourselves, who – from outside our community – could help with the problems we are studying? Obviously, this is a multi- and interdisciplinary effort. Therefore, a joint, multi- and interdisciplinary research agenda and mutual exchange are required.

Towards a Joint Research Agenda

Our recent Organization & Environment special issue on BMfS covers a broad range of entrepreneurial, managerial and innovation issues. However, a lot remains to be done with regard to theory development and management support. Here, the original business model and the diverse sustainability communities could and should work together, develop projects and write articles that contribute to theory development and management support and are acceptable to their various audiences – including their respective journals.

The following exemplary research problems were identified in the editorial article of our special issue and could serve as a starting point for a joint research agenda for the original and the sustainability-oriented business model communities:

Theory development

  • How can theories on the organisational level (e.g. dynamic capabilities), individual level (e.g. responsible leadership) or on both levels (e.g. organizational learning) help explain green and social business model transformations?
  • How do BMfS co-evolve and trigger industry transformations both via market interaction and system transitions (e.g. evolutionary economics)?
  • Which learning-action networks and collaborations, but also power struggles between stakeholder groups, are involved in the creation of BMfS (e.g. stakeholder theory)?

Management support

  • Which management frameworks and instruments enable the management of and transition to BMfS (e.g. change management)?
  • Which frameworks and instruments can support innovation (e.g. design thinking, The Natural Step) and strategy implementation (e.g. Business Model Canvas) for BMfS?
  • How can performance and societal impacts be measured and managed on the business model level (e.g. balanced scorecard)?

These are just a few exemplary topics. But it is a starting point. It is also, or even much more, an open invitation to scholars from fields such as entrepreneurship, innovation, design, policy, and transition research, and many more, to develop a joint agenda that allows for true multi- and interdisciplinary BMfS research.

Our dynamically growing communities – e.g. Business Model Community, Sustainable Business Model Blog, Strongly Sustainable Business Model Group, Sustainability Transitions Research Network, Inno4SD – could benefit from such an agenda to progress in a more synergistic way, combining the best of these worlds: up-to-date knowledge about business model and sustainability research.

Such an agenda would shed some light on the twilight zone of BMfS research and would help to establish it as a research field in its own right.

Let’s start the conversation – now.

Florian Lüdeke-Freund is a senior research associate at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He is a research fellow at the Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM), Leuphana University, and the Governing Responsible Business Research Environment at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His research deals with sustainable entrepreneurship, sustainable business models, and innovation. Florian founded www.SustainableBusinessModel.org as an international research hub addressing sustainability, business model, and innovation topics.

Pic by Rod Serling’s classic anthology, The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1961)