Why look forwards when you can look back? Mark Charmer examines today’s corporate social conundrum
My life is a mess and so is yours. Well, it’s not but if the people I met recently have anything to do with it, we’ll soon look that way. A debate in May at the think tank Demos reckoned ‘Web 2.0’ will transform the way everything can be scrutinised as ‘trust of conventional sources is declining’ and access to information increasing for every individual. The aim was to ask what this means for democracy and I don’t think the conclusion sounded very straightforward.
Apparently blogs, internet chat rooms and the like are leading to the existing lines of communications with corporations and government being chucked out with the fax machine, replaced by greater participation from consumers and other ‘stakeholders’. This is a clamour, drum roll, for greater Corporate Social Responsibility – more ‘conversation partners’, more openness, a ‘rethink of the command and control approach’. And we’ll need much more transparency – of government, of corporation and, surely by implication, each one of us.
Let the headache start here
Well let me stop this party right now – a fully transparent world is not a pretty sight: it is expensive because everything has to be documented and it highlights too many human failings – yes I’m talking about us – which have long been a fundamental and often entertaining part of any society, firm and especially government. Where, after all would it end? And talking the language of the City here, transparency has a cost – a lot of the reluctance to do what the media clamours for as a ‘full public enquiry’ is about the time and expense involved in making everything open to scrutiny. Unless you’re on an archaeological dig, it’s not efficient to build the house while tagging every brick along the way.
I know this may sound terribly disappointing – of course we should all be accountable and of course it’s right that people with a case have a chance to make it. But when you’re talking about companies selling products and services, it’s just common sense that there isn’t any chance all the profits are going to get diverted into this kind of engagement with the outside world.
Things won’t go well if you try to be too nice
So unless we get a bit more visionary, right now it looks like socially responsible business will become a new form of PR. Of course, it will be backed up – by teams of people responding to customer concerns, by programmes designed to address ‘stakeholder issues’ and by better links with those campaigning on all kinds of points, from recycling to safety, from privacy to diversity. But building CSR into the next big PR thing is folly for a couple of reasons.
Chevron's 'Will you join us?' campaign seems to emphasise dialogue and engagement but it's not clear if this is advertising dressed as CSR or something bolder. It needs to be more.
First, companies have failed through history to live up to the expectations of the communities that have built up around them. Most companies are formed to serve markets and profit from them and over time these markets rise and decline. The firms also change how they fulfil these needs, grappling with the legacy of past investment decisions, trying to make sense of the future and trying to organise and make a profit out of the present.
This is obvious to the people fighting right now around the world for pension rights they thought were guaranteed. It’s obvious, too, to governments looking hopelessly at firms like Peugeot in the UK and Ford and General Motors in the US, who built factories, sometimes partly at the taxpayer’s expense, but which have run out of markets. Anyone that thinks the next generation of corporations will put social responsibility before profit and shareholders needs a reality check.
A second issue is that people feel more strongly about losing something than gaining something. So if you make CSR some kind of new-style headquarters complaints department, the agenda for the future gets seized by passionate but rather conservative influencers.
Take the future of how we travel, which is an area I spend a lot of time looking at. Many politicians and most environmental groups have driven through as given an assumption that, for congestion and environmental reasons, in future we will somehow have to restrict moving about so much. Kind of like a curfew society, but one that cares. Similarly, the safety lobby, the media and most consumers seem to think safe travel is only possible in ever bigger and heavier machines. Which is pretty daft and rather frustrating really, given the previous point. So the set of conclusions doesn’t really stack up. Sure, in isolation each concern makes sense. But the concerns point to a problem and a need to rewrite all the rules, not to tighten each one up. This is something that requires vision and ingenuity – something that companies can be rather good at when they try.
Finding a new sense of purpose
Alas right now most companies are gearing up mainly to respond to the networks of pressure groups and media campaigns that have an important, but not comprehensive set of things to say about the future. Worse, author Hywel Williams, in a new book on ruling elites, reckons those same companies are now outsourcing the vision thing to consultants – power, he reckons, lies with that and a financial elite. So as the political establishment face diminishing control, this leaves a void – without the past form of ruling class that at least had a facade of democratic accountability, who really rules?
Certainly not users of Web 2.0. Sure, they can influence the detail – does Apple sort out scratchy screens on its iPod and does Cunard refund cruise liner passengers for a curtailed holiday. But on the big stuff it’s how business leaders make sense of the world that matters – and how they responsibly engage with the faded but still relevant political elite.
AOL's heavily advertised '/discuss' initiative might be a caring, sharing form of public research on its more active users but is it really helping people make sense of how technology is changing their lives? For most, it barely scratches the surface.
And scrutiny and campaigning, while taking us to a certain point, won’t do enough to harness how that process works. Companies largely deal with the present and will continue to do so. But they need to be encouraged – and given the space – to create a better future for everyone, or perhaps more reasonably, simply for their customers, provided that doesn’t spoil everyone else’s prospects.
But if you’re part of this new elite, are you really sure what you are trying to achieve? Perhaps the best you can do is mean what you stand for. And to do that you have to stand for something.
So forget scrutinising the audit trail right now. Because the more of that you do, the messier you’ll feel. Decide where transparency is important and then where it’s just pandering. And forget the CSR team for a while. Standing for something, be it guaranteed pensions for staff, be it ingenious engineering – be it clean and comfortable toilets for heaven’s sake – is what matters. But look ahead, down the road. Because you are a business and you always will be. And at the back of our minds we all know that really.
Mark Charmer is a director of The Movement Design Bureau, which works with those reshaping the future of movement. An abridged version of this article was featured in the July issue of C-Magazine, a new publication for chief executives from Fairfax Media.