Pushing Beyond the Ordinary in Corporate Social Responsibility

We believe that over the next 10 years, effective CSR initiatives of purpose-driven companies will be characterized by three principles: business alignment, user-centricity and co-creation.
Mar 3, 2020 6:30 AM ET
Article

Corporate social responsibility—the practice of companies holding themselves accountable to serve a social purpose and make a positive impact—was not always the main focus of business leaders. Channel some profits into philanthropy, it was thought, and you’ve checked the CSR box.

Those days are long gone.

Clients now expect companies to be purpose-driven, and corporations know it: Between 2011 and 2018, the share of Fortune 500 companies publishing CSR reports grew from roughly 20 percent to more than 85 percent. During that period, CSR went from being a "nice-to-have" to a "must-have.

In fact, four of five people surveyed say corporations should prioritize purpose as much as profit, according to IBM’s recently published Global Purpose Study, conducted in November by Morning Consult. The study, which surveyed 7,020 people in 14 countries, also reflected that people have specific opinions, which vary based on country of residence and age, as to which kinds of CSR programs they most admire.

Still, there is widespread uncertainty about what makes CSR effective and how to get there.

We believe that over the next 10 years, effective CSR initiatives of purpose-driven companies will be characterized by three principles: business alignment, user-centricity and co-creation. No matter what kind of CSR framework you prioritize, these design principles can provide a strong foundation.

Business Alignment

In the “age of authenticity,” CSR should be woven into the fabric of an organization. If it's an afterthought, and fully dependent on the company's yearly profits, then CSR can become hard to scale and sustain. The goal for effective CSR is to make a real difference. If viewed as optional, it might never make a permanent impact.

If companies align their CSR efforts to the qualities that help make their business models great, they have a chance to do something extraordinary. So ask yourselves, “What makes our company special?” If you're a bank, don't limit yourself to staffing soup kitchens. Take the next step and help the unemployed with personal finance advice or job-seeking strategies.

If you are a tech company, and you know that there is a shortage of STEM-savvy students, and you recognize that there are severe educational disparities based on geography and ethnicity, then don't just donate computers or cash and hope for the best. Don't limit yourself to making the occasional visit to classrooms. Instead, reinvent the paradigm of education, and put your understanding of computer competencies to work. Build a skills pipeline for the private sector—one that will also move marginalized communities into well-paying careers.

That's what we did here at IBM, with the P-TECH education model we pioneered. P-TECH schools are innovative public high schools that enable students to graduate with a free associate’s degree in applied science, engineering, computer science or other competitive STEM disciplines. Industry partners such as IBM provide students with mentors and paid internships. To date, P-TECH schools have been announced in 24 countries, in collaboration with key education and industry partners.

User-Centricity

The most recent Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to a trio of researchers who changed our understanding of world poverty, and how to alleviate it. Their innovation was in pinpointing the real faces of poverty, which turned out to be very different from the sweeping generalizations previously assumed by the Western world. That is what user-centricity is all about.

As technology evolves, the “age of the average” is drawing to a close. Instead of demanding access to goods and services designed for the “average consumer,” we now crave personalization in everything from entertainment to medicine.

User-centricity is at the core of most business models, and it should be driving social impact initiatives as well.

For example, if your company offers technical or vocational training to the community, don't just settle for generic workshops. Determine what skills are in demand, and analyze how local residents learn best. Then help them put their knowledge to use by helping them find a job.

We applied this user-centric approach to IBM’s new SkillsBuild online learning platform, which provides the unemployed, refugees, asylum seekers and military veterans with “career fit” assessments, training, personalized coaching and the experiential learning they need to succeed in today’s workforce. SkillsBuild draws on the best of IBM’s technology in open source, AI and beyond, and is designed to help equip underserved populations for the workforce of the future.

Our focus on the user was also at the heart of a digital tool, called the Cancer Guidelines Navigator. It is designed to help over-burdened, under-resourced oncologists across sub-Saharan Africa by providing treatment options in the NCCN Harmonized Guidelines ™ for sub-Saharan Africa for cancer patients. It had to be easy to learn and use, and it needed to take into account that oncologists and patients in sub-Saharan Africa don't have access to all of the same medications that Western countries have.

Co-Creation

What do P-TECH, SkillsBuild and the Cancer Guidelines Navigator have in common? They all benefit from co-creation—the involvement of multiple stakeholders at every stage of a product or project, from conception to design to implementation.

We couldn't have created the first P-TECH school without working directly with City University of New York and the New York City public school system. We couldn’t have expanded the P-TECH model, in which participating companies work with school districts to understand their unique curriculum needs, without engaging the business community—even competitors. Around the world, there are now more than 600 companies affiliated with the P-TECH model.

We couldn't have created SkillsBuild without working with the NGO partners that help enrollees find jobs. We couldn't have created the Cancer Guidelines Navigator without working with the American Cancer Society, Africa Cancer Coalition, Clinton Health Access Initiative and National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

Similarly, co-creation is at the heart of our work on the Traffik Analysis Hub, a first-of-its-kind international data sharing and analytics platform to disrupt the growing criminal industry of human trafficking. During its design and development, we partnered with financial institutions and NGOs to create a platform designed to capture information from multiple sources.

(For more detail on these guiding principles, you can view and download a full report, here.)

CSR can no longer be considered a branding exercise, to be developed in a vacuum with the goal of burnishing a company’s reputation. Creating purpose-driven CSR, of the caliber that clients worldwide are demanding, is not easy. But by prioritizing business alignment, user-centricity and co-creation, companies can consider themselves off to an excellent start.