Full paper available at SSRN.
The recent economic and financial crisis of 2007-2009 had dramatic consequences for individuals, communities, corporations, and governments around the world. In fact, the period of the crisis has been named the “Great Recession” because it is the worst post-World War II contraction on record. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by approximately 5.1% between December 2007 and June 2009. About 8.7 million jobs were lost, while the unemployment rate climbed from 5.0% in December 2007 to 9.5% by June 2009, and peaked at 10.0% by October of the same year. Long-term unemployment also rose to historic highs during the same period.
Economic crises such as the Great Recession are disruptive for firms across industries, markets, and geographies. Crises of this magnitude trigger discussions about fundamental issues of strategy and radical organizational change since they are typically associated with periods of significantly greater uncertainty (Bloom 2014), changes in the regulatory and policy framework (Baker et al. 2013, Pastor and Veronesi 2012, Rodrik 1996), higher cost of capital and tightened access to external sources of credit (Chodorow-Reich 2014), disruptions in supply chains (Cattaneo et al. 2010, Levy 1994), deteriorating consumer demand (Mian et al. 2013), and increased risk of firm failure (Bernanke 1981, Bhattacharjee et al. 2009).In short, an economic meltdown leaves virtually no aspect of firms’ business environment unaffected, disrupts their stakeholder relationships (such as relationships with employees, customers, suppliers, and local communities), and generates a major shift in the competitive landscape. Thus, companies need to fundamentally rethink and reshape their strategies to ensure firm survival and sustain (or even enhance) their competitiveness.
Despite the severity and frequency of economic crises, we know surprisingly little about their impact on firm-level decision-making and, in particular, on firms’ competitive strategies (e.g., Bromiley et al. 2008). This is a significant void in the literature, given that all firms are subject to the macroeconomic business cycle, and that managers likely face multiple recessions during their careers. Firm strategies need to strike the right balance between the development of sustainable competitive advantage in the long-term on the one hand, and the adaptation to short-term disturbances in the business environment on the other. While the adaptation to external changes has long been a focus within strategic management research, the spotlight has been on relatively incremental changes or changes within a specific industry (e.g., Christensen 1997, Eisenhardt and Martin 2000, Helfat et al. 2007, Meyer 1982, Teece et al. 1997). In contrast, the critical issue of firm strategy in times of major shocks—shocks that adversely impact multiple industries and economies simultaneously, disrupting the entire business environment—remains largely unexplored (Agarwal et al. 2009, Garcia-Sanchez et al. 2014).
In a first effort to fill this gap in the literature, we investigate changes in companies’ investment strategies in recessionary times. More specifically, we theorize and empirically examine whether and in which direction firms adapt their strategic investments in human capital, physical capital (tangible), and organizational capital (intangible) resources, all of which are identified in the existing literature as critical strategic firm resources in the context of long-term value creation (Barney 1991).
Whether firms should cut or increase strategic investments is not a priori obvious given that a disruptive shock to the business environment presents firms with both challenges as well as opportunities.On the one hand, an economic downturn may impair firms’ ability to undertake investments in key strategic resources (e.g., due to declining revenues, increased market uncertainty, higher cost of capital, and tightened access to the credit market). As a result, they may lay off employees, postpone expansion and infrastructure projects, liquidate assets, delay R&D projects, or eliminate corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs to maintain cash flows. In other words, firms may try to save their way out of recession. On the other hand, economic downturns can also represent an opportunity for firms to expand investments, i.e., to invest their way out of recession. For example, a recession might generate opportunities to acquire new or expand existing assets at lower cost―given that asset and equity prices typically fall during recessions―or opportunities to hire employees at lower wages (Bils 1985, Solon et al. 1994). Firms can also invest in innovation to strengthen their competitiveness for when the economy recovers and consumer demand picks up again. Similarly, investing in CSR programs during trying times may enable firms to strengthen their stakeholder relations, thus improving organizational resilience during as well as after such recessionary periods.
Anecdotal evidence abounds with examples of companies cutting investments in human capital and tangible resources while sustaining their investments in intangible resources―such as innovation and stakeholder relations―during economic crises. In fact, while many U.S. companies cut jobs and wages, they continued spending on innovation (Wall Street Journal 2009a). A survey of 290 senior executives and R&D leaders confirms the vital role of innovation in corporate strategy during recessions (Booz & Company 2009). To remain competitive and in an attempt to improve a firm’s competitiveness, the majority of surveyed companies sustains—or even boosts—investments in R&D. For example, Harman International, a $3 billion maker of high-end car audio and infotainment systems, aimed to “emerge leaner, more efficient, and more technologically capable” (Robert Lardon, Booz & Company 2009, p. 11) from the downturn. Similarly, many innovative products from Apple’s iPod to General Electric (GE)’s fuel-efficient aircraft engines resulted from investments during economic downturns (Wall Street Journal 2009a).
Relatedly, many large companies, including GE, IKEA, Intel, Microsoft, Rio Tinto, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart maintained their investments in CSR programs during the recent recession (Boston Consulting Group 2009, Fortune 2009). For example, despite the economic slump, GE continued its investments in CSR programs, including citizenship efforts across the globe, the development of environmentally friendly practices and products such as solar panels, clean-coal power plants, etc. (Fortune 2009). A similar approach is taken by Starbucks whose CEO Howard Schultz stated during the crisis, “Now is a time to invest, truly and authentically, in our people, in our corporate responsibility and in our communities. The argument—and opportunity—for companies to do this has never been more compelling” (Huffington Post 2008). Intel’s chairman, Craig Barrett, echoes the view that strategic investments in people and environment cannot wait and that stakeholder relations cannot be put on the back burner; as he puts it in a nutshell, “You can’t save your way out of recession—you have to invest your way out” (Fortune 2009).
Drawing from different strands of literature, we theorize that sustaining investments in intangible strategic resources—such as innovation and stakeholder relationships—in recessionary times is of particular importance to maintain, or even enhance, firms’ competitiveness. Specifically, we theoretically argue that a strategic focus on these resources can help companies sustain their competitiveness by enabling them to i) become more efficient and innovative, ii) adapt more easily to shifting needs and demands of suppliers, consumers, and other stakeholders, and iii) enhance organizational resilience. For example, by investing in R&D projects in a time of crisis (and therefore, in a time of scarcity), companies may find innovative ways to become more efficient, i.e., to do more with less. Relatedly, existing research finds that through experimentation companies are better able to adapt quickly to changes in the business environment (e.g., Eisenhardt and Martin 2000) and improve their technological capability. Moreover, information, communication, collaboration, and stakeholder orientation are important factors in the innovation process (e.g., Eisenhardt 1989, Eisenhardt and Martin 2000, Flammer and Kacperczyk 2015). Accordingly, we argue that the stronger the firms’ stakeholder relationships are, the better positioned firms are to understand changing situations in times of crisis, identify concerns and opportunities, and adapt to shifting needs and expectations of various stakeholders. Furthermore, firms with superior stakeholder relations are more likely to benefit from, for example, lower price elasticity of demand and higher consumer loyalty (e.g., Du et al. 2007, Kotler et al. 2012), enhanced attractiveness as employer (e.g., Turban and Greening 1996), reduced risk of social activism and regulatory action (e.g., Baron and Diermeier 2007, Maxwell et al. 2000), and lower capital constraints (Cheng et al. 2014). Hence, we propose that exhibiting leadership and commitment towards stakeholders can help companies improve their organizational resilience through such mechanisms and, as a result, companies would be able to maintain or even enhance their competitiveness during the downturn. In line with these arguments, we posit that companies react to macroeconomic meltdowns by strategically sustaining their investments in innovation and stakeholder relationships.
As discussed, to date, the important question of whether firms save or invest their way out of economic crises has been neither theoretically nor empirically addressed in the literature. From an empirical perspective, this question is particularly difficult to answer given that all companies are affected (i.e., “treated”) by a recession; thus, there is no natural “control” group that provides a counterfactual of how companies would have behaved had they not been affected by the recession. Studying the Great Recession helps overcome this empirical challenge. An important feature of the Great Recession—and one that makes it particularly suitable for academic studies—is the role played by house prices. Regions in which the house price collapse was more severe (and hence where a larger fraction of households ended up with negative home equity) experienced a larger drop in households’ purchasing power, leading to a larger drop in consumption (Mian and Sufi 2011, 2014, Mian et al. 2013). Therefore, the severity of the house price drop provides cross-sectional—more precisely, regional—variation in the severity of the crisis. This cross-sectional variation can be used to study how firms that are more severely affected by the recession (i.e., firms located in regions that experience a larger drop in house prices) adjust their strategic investments compared to firms that are less affected. In principle, this methodology is similar to a difference-in-differences approach in which we would compare the strategic investments of firms in more affected regions (“treatment group”) with those of firms in less affected regions (“control group”). Using this methodology, we examine how the drop in house prices affects firms’ investments in key strategic resources. These are typically classified in the literature as human capital, tangible, and intangible resources (Barney 1986, 1991). Accordingly, we consider a) the size of the workforce to capture changes in human capital, b) capital expenditures to capture changes in tangible resources, and c) R&D and CSR investments to capture changes in intangible resources.
Our findings indicate that during the Great Recession, companies significantly reduced their workforce and capital expenditures. Yet, and this is a remarkable finding, they maintained the same level of investments in R&D and CSR. Referring to the opening quote of our study, this result is a “non-barking dog”―i.e., the interesting finding is not so much what companies did, but rather what they did not do: they did not cut back on R&D and CSR investments, despite the cost-cutting pressures and other disruptions that are inherent in periods of recession. Consistent with our theoretical arguments, these findings suggest that intangible resources such as innovation and stakeholder relations are instrumental in sustaining a competitive advantage during and after recessionary times.
A potential concern with our empirical approach is that changes in house prices might be endogenous with respect to firms’ strategic investments—i.e., unobservable variables may drive both changes in house prices and changes in investment strategies. To address this concern, we use an instrumental variable (IV) approach, whereby we instrument changes in house prices with Saiz’ (2010) topological measure of housing supply elasticity. The intuition is that in regions where it is difficult to build new housing (e.g., due to steep hills or rocky terrain), housing prices are more likely to be sensitive to changes in housing demand. Importantly, the region’s topological features are unlikely to be systematically related to firms’ strategic investments. We find that all our results hold when we use this IV approach.
In auxiliary analyses, we further document that―although on average firms do not cut their investments in R&D and CSR―firms operating in less R&D-intensive and less CSR-sensitive industries, respectively, are more likely to do so. This result is intuitive, yet it offers additional verification for the mechanisms we argue for in our study. For example, in less R&D-intensive industries, firms’ competitiveness is less likely to depend on their innovative capabilities. Similarly, CSR is less likely to enhance competitiveness in industries in which CSR engagement is less salient. Finally, we examine whether companies that sustain their investments in R&D and CSR perform better once the economy recovers, and we find that they do. Specifically, they achieve higher operating performance—as measured by the return on assets (ROA) and net profit margin (NPM)—in the post-recession years (2010-2011).
Overall, our findings show that companies sustain their investments in intangible strategic resources such as innovation and stakeholder relations during economic downturns, suggesting that such investment strategies contribute towards the firms’ ability to strengthen their competitiveness during economic crises (and after recovery). In the following, we develop the theoretical arguments in detail, describe the methodology, present the empirical results, and conclude.
 The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) defines a recession as a period of falling economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales.
It is hard for any business leader today to ignore sustainability.
Indeed, the latest UN Global Compact–Accenture CEO study found that 97% of the 1,000 CEOs interviewed across 103 countries and 27 industries see sustainability as important to the future success of their business. Moreover, 78% see sustainability as an opportunity for growth and innovation. Notably, 84% of the CEOs believe that business should lead efforts to define and deliver sustainable development goals, and 79% of them see sustainability as a route to competitive advantage in their industry.
Effective and responsible leaders are those who are able to integrate sustainability throughout all aspects of their business and their strategy. In previous decades we mostly focused on leaders who were exceptionally good at managing within the economic context. Now we need leaders who can also thrive within the social and environmental context in which their businesses operate. The two are in fact intrinsically interdependent and building an integrated business model is the way to establish a truly sustainable competitive advantage in the long term.
This is where leading business schools can play a critical role. We need to develop leaders capable of thinking beyond the short-term economic objectives and ambitious enough to take on the world’s biggest challenges such as climate change, extreme poverty and income inequality. We need to teach them how to synergistically manage the social and environmental contexts in combination with the economic one and how to value, understand and be accountable for, their businesses’ financial as well as non-financial performance.
The truth is this is still unchartered territory. As academics, we are only now beginning to understand how businesses become sustainable given that businesses themselves are still experimenting in terms of the strategies and initiatives that they are adopting.
While there isn’t a comprehensive set of best practices that business schools can confidently prescribe, what we can do is to be actively involved in an exciting series of experiments and active learning with the business community, and its stakeholders. Sustainability has to be discovered. The role of business education therefore, for now, isn’t to teach best practice. It is rather to provide a structured understanding of the challenges, establish the parameters of possible solutions and accordingly drive curiosity, collaboration and adaptability.
Outside of business schools we know that we have collective obstacles to sustainability, such as our often-exclusive focus on the short term and on profitability. Profitability, of course, is not a bad thing, indeed it is a necessary condition. But it is not a sufficient condition. To overcome collective obstacles what we need is collective learning: conferences, collaborations and knowledge-sharing with peers and competitors inside and outside of, our own industries. Business Schools are uniquely placed to host these informed debates.
Yesterday at London Business School, we hosted His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales to discuss the role of leading business schools in promoting sustainability within the finance and accounting community.
The meeting, arranged by The Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project (A4S) and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), with support from London Business School, brought together Deans, Programme Directors, Heads of Finance and Accounting and leaders from the business and investment community. This is precisely the sort of collaboration we need to crack the big questions about how business can stop being perceived as part of the problem and instead, become part of the solution by contributing positively and effectively towards the resolution of the world’s most serious challenges.
HRH The Prince of Wales, said: “Business schools have a fundamentally important role to play in providing new thinking on accounting for social environmental issues.
“Business schools are rooted in academia and industry. Society looks to you to secure our future.”
It was an inspiring event. The participants highlighted the fundamental role that business and business education needs to play in a move to a more sustainable future. Inter-disciplinary and ambitious research by academics in close collaboration with leading businesses was also identified as a key objective. Importantly, many of the discussions noted the urgent nature of the global challenges and the pressing need to accelerate our joint efforts towards pushing the boundaries of innovation and breakthrough thinking on issues of sustainability.
Educating responsible leaders, with a profound knowledge of business fundamentals as well as a deep understanding of the global environmental and social challenges, emerged as our joint understanding of the future role of business education.
Indeed, our students are increasingly interested in these issues and seek to work for businesses whose values and vision are aligned with their own. This is apparent not just through daily interactions with them in the classroom, input on business, society and government, case studies and talks from prominent leaders with a strong sustainability record, but also through the numerous student-led activities that are being organised.
Our Net Impact Club is one of the fastest growing student clubs in recent years. To date, the club has organised three annual sustainability conferences, where we welcome senior business leaders to discuss sustainability issues in depth. This year’s event, the Society.Economy.Environment Summit, focuses on the future of sustainable business. London Business School students are also engaging with issues of sustainability and social responsibility through other student-led clubs and initiatives such as the Energy Club, which organises very successful annual events including the Global Energy Summit, and the Clean Tech Challenge. Moreover, the School has partnered with the Global Social Venture Competition, which our students take part in.
Through these activities we encourage our students to understand that training managers is only one piece, albeit an important one, of a much bigger transformational change that needs to take place. What’s involved here is a broader cultural shift and a change to the very identity of the modern business organisation, and a fundamental redefinition of its role within society.
Where companies are making great strides in sustainability you will see this not only in their management training but also in their corporate governance and in the types of incentives which motivate executives to move beyond financial outputs. The successful sustainable company will have a board that oversees the company’s sustainability commitments and structured processes to engage with stakeholders and that imaginative spirit of experimentation and collaboration, transparency and accountability, which are so crucial if sustainability is to thrive, not just survive.
Original Forbes blog available here.
Michael Levie, a seasoned hotel executive, and Rattan Chadha, a successful retail entrepreneur, were having dinner. The topic of conversation was the hotel industry. Both men thought that the industry was stale and too homogeneous relative to the diversity of customers it sought to serve. The industry had largely been unaltered since the onset of hotel chains over half a century ago. As Levie put it, “in this industry, people already think they have innovated if they have painted a grey wall green.” They two men were plotting to change that.
In 2008, they opened their first hotel, at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, followed by one in Amsterdam City in 2009. Further hotels followed in subsequent years, in Glasgow, London, Rotterdam, New York and Paris. They called their budding chain “citizenM”; for mobile citizens. The customer group they envisioned consisted of frequent travelers; people who could just as easily be visiting the aforementioned cities for a quick business trip as for a leisurely weekend away with their partner. As they put it, “a mix of explorer, professional and shopper.”
The men thought that these customers, on arrival, really did not need a porter to pick up their luggage and carry it to their room – after all, they had likely just brought it all the way from the airport on their own. Moreover, when entering the hotel, they would not find themselves in a large lobby with a check-in desk. Instead, citizenM installed check-in machines that dispensed keys when guests inserted their credit card.
Space comes at a premium in hubs such as New York and London, and Levie and Chadha realized return on square footage was going to be key. So they also crossed out restaurants, bars, and conference facilities – amenities most travelers rarely use. (The solo business travelers Levie and Chadha envisioned as their customers, for example, would prefer to get some sushi at a self-service counter to sitting at a table alone being served by a waiter, and weekend leisure travelers would likely be eating out at restaurants anyway.) Instead, what guests encounter when they enter a citizenM hotel is one large downstairs space, loosely subdivided by high-end designer furniture and pieces of contemporary art, with area central area referred to as “canteenM”. Here you can order coffee or a cocktail and pay for the food you have picked up in the self-service area.
citizenM’s aim was to create a space so attractive that, guests would prefer to spend their time there, rather than in their rooms. This allowed Levie and Chadha to make the bedrooms quite small – the size of a shipping container. These rooms are entirely manufactured off-site at an assembly line and transported to the hotel site. There they can be stacked together in various shapes, “just like playing Lego”, Michael Levie observed. Yet they are luxurious, with a power shower, high quality bedding, and in-room tablets that control free movies, internet, and personalized mood-settings. Once entered, the guests’ preferences are stored in a central database so that wherever they check in to a citizenM again, the room is personalized.
As a result of these decisions, citizenM’s construction costs are 40 percent lower than other 4-star hotels, staffing is 40 percent lower too, but occupancy rates (consistently above 95%) are considerably higher. Immediately after opening in 2008, citizenM won the Venuez Award for “Best Hotel Concept.” One year later, it was ranked as a best business hotel by the Sunday Times, CNBC, and Fortune. In both 2010 and 2011, TripAdvisor voted citizenM “The Trendiest Hotel in the World.”
The success of citizenM offers clear suggestions on what steps to take when looking for a new way to compete in a relatively stable and homogeneous industry:
- Focus: don’t try to be attractive to everyone.
- Eliminate all things superfluous for your chosen customer base.
- Replace them with new offerings found by analogy.
Consider citizenM’s use of the first step: citizenM decided immediately that it would focus on one particular type of customer only: individual, frequent travelers. Typically, competing hotels fill as many as 70 percent of their rooms long in advance with mass bookings for conferences, corporate rates, and airline personnel – at large discounts – citizenM accepts no such corporate clients but prices all their rooms automatically in real-time, dependent on supply and demand.
When you are in an industry where the firms are more homogeneous than the customers, it should be possible to define a subgroup whose needs are alike, which may well cut across traditional demographics. Focusing on that particular group often enables a new way to compete because the firms that try to be everything to everyone will inevitably be imperfect in their offering.
As Michael Levie of citizenM put it, “I think that when you decide on a niche market, what you decide on what you want to be doing, do that extremely well and don’t do other things. [Other hotels in] the industry create hotels that mid-week should be good for a business traveler. On the weekends it should be good for a group or a wedding party, or for family travel. Good luck! It ain’t happening. [You can’t] create a boat that has an engine, is a row boat and a sailboat all in one. Decide who you want to be and be very good at it!”
When having defined a subgroup, companies often proceed to think of things that those customers would value and be willing to pay for. citizenM took another step first; it asked “what things can be eliminated for this particular group, without much affecting its willingness to pay?” It quickly came out at quite a lot of things (which, in turn, helped define the subgroup): facilities such as a restaurant, a separate bar, a spa, room service, and so on, were all excluded. This is an important step; yet asking what to reduce or eliminate is not a question that seems to come naturally to many executives.
Of course, developing a new model does not usually end with taking superfluous things out; a new way to compete is more than merely a stripped down version of what came before. New offerings will, however, by definition, not be found in the industry itself. citizenM explicitly used analogical reasoning to develop new elements in its hotels. The check-in machines are similar to those at airports; its luxury but small bedrooms resemble those at a cruise ship; its booking and pricing system follows that of low-cost airlines; and hotel construction resembles Lego. The downstairs space – not coincidentally referred to as the hotel’s “living room” – with a “kitchen” as its center of activity, is made to mimic the feel of a luxurious and contemporary home, where there’s free Wi-Fi, quality furniture, and you can open the fridge to get a glass of milk at any time, and where bedrooms are only used for sleeping, showering, and perhaps watching a (free) movie.
Focusing on a core customer, eliminating unneeded elements, and its active use of analogies enabled citizenM to develop a new model in its industry. Today, citizenM is in the process of acquiring additional hotel sites in both Europe and the US, and has entered into an alliance to roll out the concept in Asia. Their new way to compete is likely coming to a place near you very soon.
Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concerns are increasingly being factored into the valuation and management of financial assets. Issues such as climate change, sustainability, consumer protection, social responsibility and employee engagement are no longer viewed solely as components of risk management, but have also gained recognition in recent years as important drivers of firm value, particularly in the long term.
We present results from one of the first comprehensive surveys covering the role of ESG in the investment practices of the private equity industry. This is the first phase of a deeper academic investigation of the topic. Based on responses from 42 private equity firms, representing a broad geographic and sector focus and a cumulative total of over US$640 billion in assets under management, the findings indicate that ESG policy – far from being a peripheral consideration – emerges as a core value-creation strategy at private equity funds for portfolio companies.
We find that this trend appears to be led by LP demand, and that the integration of ESG permeates down from the highest board levels, throughout the organization and all the way through to the individual private equity fund level, with core investment professionals often tasked with ESG policy implementation. Moreover, ESG policy appears to be rather sophisticated in that consideration of such issues takes place at the origination stage as well as during the period of asset ownership, although adherence to ESG policies is not uniform and is often implemented through guidelines rather than investment rules. We also find that ESG policies encompass not only environmental, social, and governance matters but also ethical issues, with companies actively monitoring their activities, gathering data and reporting along these dimensions.
In our sample, the emphasis on ESG policy as a core private equity value creation strategy is particularly prominent in the largest of the private equity funds (i.e., AUM >US$10 billion), where investor pressure is reported to be most acute. However, despite this focus, some barriers are reported in quantifying and monitoring the implementation of ESG policy. Importantly, we also discover fascinating heterogeneity across firms, in terms of how ESG policies are implemented and the processes by which ESG is integrated in decision-making. We speculate that such heterogeneity will likely have important implications for the variation in capability across private equity firms to generate value through ESG.
This week, I was an invited panelist at the Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility organized by the European Commission in Brussels (http://www.csrmsf.eu/). Our panel discussed “CSR as a Driver for Innovation, Competitiveness and Growth”. It was a really insightful and engaging conversation that I thoroughly enjoyed. Here are my opening remarks:
• It’s really a pleasure and a privilege to be here with you this morning. Thank you to the organisers and the European commission for giving me this valuable opportunity to share some useful academic insights on this very critical issue of CSR.
• Partly because of growing corporate engagement, and partly because of increasing data availability and comparability across industries and geographies, a lot of academic work has taken place in the domain of CSR in the last couple of years, both theoretical as well as empirical.
• Scholars have not only focused on the big question, whether CSR pays, but the research questions have become more sophisticated: in particular, we now ask under what conditions does CSR pay, and of course, relevant for this panel is the question of, what are the mechanisms through which value may be created through CSR.
• I should note that more recent work, is slowly adapting to a new language, and rather than CSR, we begin to discuss issues of sustainability, not in terms of green strategies, but indeed, in terms of the sustainability of the business within its economic, but also within its broader social and environmental context.
• In other words, the social and environmental pressures and challenges that the world is facing have fundamental consequences on the role of the corporation in society, and the role of business. This is particularly important given that business has been traditionally viewed as part of the problem rather than as part of a potential solution to these great challenges, such as climate change, or extreme income inequality.
• So, what do we know today about how the best of firms go about implementing CSR? Well, one thing we do know well is that there are many ways to implement CSR in ways that are inefficient, wasteful, or simply ineffective. For example, undertaking a specific CSR initiative simply because everyone else in the industry is, or initiate CSR engagement through green-washing, all of which are not great ways through which to create value in the long-run, and not just for the corporation, but indeed for society at large. In other words, we know that CSR is more likely to fail whenever it is not perceived and treated as a potentially profitable and scalable core business activity.
• A key thing to note is that engagement with CSR implies a truly transformational change for organizations, which poses challenges. It certainly isn’t a Friday afternoon activity, and also, it certainly isn’t simply a CEO Monday morning decision: a recent study we published, with G. Serafeim and Bob Eccles, argues for the emergence of the sustainable organization; a transformation of a traditional organization that involves a fundamental rethink of the organization, it’s purpose and identity and calls for a rethink of key organizational aspects such as corporate governance, incentives, internal transparency and accountability as well as towards the markets, consideration of a company’s the investor base and the time horizon for decision-making and the broader integration of environmental and social issues into strategic decision-making.
• In short, few aspects of the modern organization remain unaffected through a genuine engagement with CSR yet with more and more research we are able to point to specific aspects of organizational designs that are best suited to embed CSR, and to integrate environmental and social issues into strategic decision-making by businesses. For example, on the issue of incentives and rewards, a recent study we completed with G. Serafeim and Shelley Li, at HBS, shows that companies that set more ambitious targets for reduction in carbon emissions and provide monetary incentives to their employees to do so, are better positioned to actually achieve these targets. They undertake, for example, more projects, and they realize more carbon savings without detriment to firm value in the long run.
• Innovation is surely a key mechanism through which CSR may create value by scaling up innovative solutions to big challenges. Because, if we take a step back, and think about the fundamentals, modern businesses are nothing more and nothing less than problem solvers: they discover an unfulfilled need, they come up with a solution (i.e. a product or a service) and then they scale it up profitably, and sometimes, in the long-run by re-inventing themselves as well as the products and services that they produce.
• In the CSR context then, the question becomes how we unleash the innovative potential of business, and how to we build organizations that start seeing the global social and environmental challenges as problems in need of solutions and scale.
• There is already some academic work that looks at the specific mechanisms through which CSR may create value for all stakeholders through innovation. For example, recent academic work has shown that a broader stakeholder orientation leads to an increase in the number of patents as well as an increase in citations per patent, using data from 34 U.S. states between 1984-2006. It is argued by the authors of that study, Caroline Flammer at Ivey Business School and Alexandra Kacpercyk at MIT, that this increase in innovation is due to a more secure work environment that is conducive to the pursuit of innovative activities, as it promotes experimentation and tolerance of failure (i.e. more hits as well as more failures). They also show that a stakeholder orientation fosters innovation by increasing stakeholder satisfaction. We know, for example, that job satisfaction is conducive to creativity and engagement.
• Other potential mechanisms include: a long-term orientation, more time for experimentation and tolerance of failure, superior exposure to the issues through stakeholder engagement, and integrated thinking due to the consideration of both financial as well as non-financial aspects.
• In sum, when we consider the broader issue of CSR engagement by corporations, we need to be clear that there are challenges at multiple levels. In the long-run, for CSR to be able to realize its potential, all of these challenges need to be addressed; some indeed may be addressed through policy, and levelling of the playing field for everyone. A good way of thinking about these challenges is as follows: There are multiple and interconnected levels; it’s a complex problem:
- Institutional challenges, at the country level (e.g. labor market, capital market, etc)
- Industry-level challenges, e.g. regulation, perceptions, long-run viability, collaboration
- Corporate level, corporate governance, leadership, transparency, decision-making
- Individual level, incentives, mind frames, behaviour
I very much look forward to discussing these issues further with the panel as well as the audience during the course of this very engaging morning here in Brussels.
Do you work for a firm where managers think employees really have to work (what is called) “full time”? That fourty hours per week (or whatever is considered “full time” in your profession) is really a necessity? Perhaps you are one of those people with that conviction yourself — that in your job it is really not possible to work ‘part time’.
Of course you are wrong: working five out of seven days is really just as arbitrary as six days, or three – or twenty-eight for that matter. Chopping up the total amount of work that needs to done in your firm into blocks that suit our human physiology has nothing to do with the actual work. If the total amount of work that needs to be done in a firm in one week equals 20,000 hours, it is just as arbitrary to chop that up into 500 40-hour work weeks as it is to chop it up into 800 blocks of 25 hours. A five-day work week consisting of eight-hour days happens to be the social norm in many of our societies at present, but I have long thought that a company that disrupts that kind of social norm in its industry could potentially build a momentous competitive advantage out of it.
Let me give you an example. The management consulting firm Eden McCallum, from London, does strategy work much like McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group, and Bain – but with one important exception: none of its roughly 500 consultants are on the payroll. All of them work on a freelance basis. Around the time of the dot-com boom in 2000, founders Liann Eden and Dena McCallum saw that many of their ex-McKinsey colleagues would love to continue doing some consulting work, just not full time. Many of them wanted to do a few consulting assignments on the side while they started their own company, wrote a book, or took care of their children, or just worked less. Others, it appeared, did not mind working full time at all, but they disliked some of the other things that came with being a partner in a traditional consulting firm, such as working on internal committees and appraisals, or doing customer acquisition. Still others were happy to work full time but only eight months a year, or without having to fly someplace every week. But for the traditional consulting firms, it was always “all or nothing”, which meant that some highly capable and motivated senior consultants would drop out of the profession altogether, or would continue but only grudgingly.
Eden and McCallum’s idea was: Come work for us! If you’re good, we’ll find you a project that suits your desires. They now have 12 partners in the firm who manage customer relations and secure and define new client projects. The only thing the consultants (usually ex-McKinsey, Bain, or BCG) are responsible for is to execute these projects to the best of their abilities. Eden McCallum, thus, manages to keep its overhead and other fixed costs at a minimum. Consequently, they are able to offer their teams of consultants at comparatively low prices, while customers are happy that the senior people actually do the work. (A frequent complaint regarding traditional consultants is that the senior partner disappears after the work has been secured, letting more junior colleagues complete the task.) Does it work? Eden McCallum is growing swiftly, having opened an office in Amsterdam with further plans afoot to set up shop in New York City, while working with increasingly prestigious clients, including Pfizer, Shell, Philips, Danone, Barclays, and many others.
Eden McCallum built its competitive advantage on unbundling the work of consultants. Is Eden McCallum the ideal employer for everyone? Most certainly not. Traditionally, senior management consultants have a range of tasks: one of them is executing client projects, but they also have to acquire future projects, and secure work on them for more junior people, they have to do internal work, regarding knowledge development, appraisals, and managing the firm, and a variety of other tasks – all on a full-time basis. And that is exactly what many consultants like doing. However, there are also a significant number who do not want to do all of the above anymore, who are not good at all of them, or who don’t want to do it five days per week all year long. If these consultants are good at executing client projects, Eden McCallum will find them a project that suits their preferences.
Could an approach like theirs work in other industries? Eden McCallum has set itself up as a so-called “double-sided market”, tying together supply (consultants) and demand (clients) – similar to platforms like eBay, eHarmony, peer-to-peer betting company Betfair, or property search firm Zoopla. Leaders at the firm realize that for skilled people disillusioned with the employment model of traditional firms, there is a strong attraction to work tailored to their individual requirements. This allows the firm to hire good employees at a good price. Clearly, there are other industries where the skill level of a firm’s employees is crucial for competitive advantage.
In fact, many companies have begun to realize that real competitive advantage is usually based on people rather than patents or products. By customizing work for its employees, Eden McCallum has begun to upend the consulting industry. If unbundling work can give a firm access to superior skills at lower prices, it could very well change your industry, too.
Why is it that engaging with charities has always been such a challenge for corporations? First and foremost, charities are quite a distinct stakeholder and one that corporations have the least experience in dealing with.
There is also a lack of mutual trust that raises suspicion and doubt regarding their respective goals and objectives. Some charities may perceive corporate engagement as a diversionary tactic used by corporations to deflect attention away from actions and behaviours that could cause them reputational damage.
Corporates tend to engage with charities through one-off direct corporate giving rather than considered campaigns. They provide a short-term boost rather than long-term support. Some people even argue that direct cash donations are a bad idea. They say that charities would benefit much more from the transfer of corporate expertise. This would include sharing knowledge and training in management, administration, growing an organisation, gathering resources and developing capabilities towards a clear objective.
Against this background then, how can corporations really engage with charities in a mutually beneficial, long-term oriented and effective way that is based on trust and co-operation? Here are some common pitfalls that I have encountered to date, together with suggestions on how best to avoid them.
SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE
Corporate language is significantly different from the language that charities and other non-governmental organizations use. Co-ordination and honest discussion become a key challenge. Corporates would be better off forgetting idiosyncratic corporate language, fancy financial acronyms and complicated accounting ratios, particularly at the early stages of the process. Instead, they should invest the time and effort towards establishing direct and honest communication channels with their potential partners, making sure that everyone around the table speaks and understands the same language.
Without a doubt, charities and corporations have substantively different objectives, and often enough both parties fail to be explicit about them right at the beginning of any collaboration. A corporation’s goal might be improved employee engagement, whereas a charity wants to maximise societal impact. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but a lack of clarity around the goals may typically generate significant co-ordination costs, slow implementation or even suspicion between the parties down the road. Consequently, it is critical for both charities and corporations to be explicit and forthcoming about the goals and objectives of the collaboration. Open and in-depth discussion can align everybody and so achieve maximum impact, and arrive at win-win outcomes.
INVEST TIME TO ENGAGE
Size isn’t everything. The effectiveness of corporate giving does not merely depend on the donation; instead it critically depends on the depth of the overall engagement. Often, corporations undertake desk research, locate the charities that exist in their close vicinity and then send cheques to a selection of them. They do not invest the necessary time and effort to understand the real needs of their potential collaborators. They don’t ask themselves: is a cash donation the best way to meaningfully engage? In addition to establishing a common language, and aligning goals and objectives, it is very important for corporations to invest in face-to-face relationship building with the charities they wish to collaborate with. Only this way will they establish common ground, start building trustful relationships, and profoundly understand their needs and the best ways to address them.
ESTABLISH INTERNAL STRUCTURE
Last but not least, establishing an internal corporate structure is very important. Time and again, collaborations with charities are forgotten internally because there is little accountability and fickle assumptions of responsibility. Corporations with a solid commitment towards developing such partnerships should establish relevant positions, processes and procedures. They must provide incentives and put in place controls to ensure the continuity and effectiveness of such initiatives in the long run. In doing so, they would also signal to their charity partners that their commitment is sincere, long-term oriented and an integral part of the corporation’s structure.
We live in the information age, which according to Wikipedia is a period in human history characterized by the shift from industrial production to one based on information and computerization.
Nothing surprising there, except for the idea that this is “a period in human history” – which tends to suggest it will come to an end at some point. The industrial revolution in the late nineteenth century ushered in the industrial age, and the digital revolution in the mid twentieth century spurred the emergence of the information age. So it is not entirely crazy to speculate about what might lie beyond the information age.
Of course, I am not arguing that information will become obsolete. Firms will always need to harness information in effective ways, just as most of them still need industrial techniques to make their products cheaply and efficiently. My point, instead, is that information will become necessary but not sufficient for firms to be successful. All this talk of “big data,” for example, feels like an attempt to strain a few more drops of juice out of an already-squeezed orange, just as Six Sigma was a way of squeezing more value out of the quality revolution. Both are valuable concepts, but their benefits are incremental, not revolutionary.
So just as night follows day, the information age will eventually be superseded by another age; and it behoves those with senior executive responsibility to develop a point of view on what that age might look like.
So here is a specific question that helps us develop this point of view: What would a world with too much information look like? And what problems would it create? I think there are at least four answers:
1. Paralysis through Analysis. In a world of ubiquitous information, there is always more out there. Information gathering is easy, and often quite enjoyable as well. My students frequently complain that they need more information before coming to a view on a difficult case-study decision. Many corporate decisions are delayed because of the need for further analysis. Whether due to the complexity of the decision in front of them, or because of the fear of not performing sufficient due diligence, the easy option facing any executive is simply to request more information.
2. Easy access to data makes us intellectually lazy. Many firms have invested a lot of money in “big data” and sophisticated data-crunching techniques. But a data-driven approach to analysis has a couple of big flaws. First, the bigger the database, the easier it is to find support for any hypothesis you choose to test. Second, big data makes us lazy – we allow rapid processing power to substitute for thinking and judgment. One example: pharmaceutical companies fell in love with “high throughput screening” techniques in the 1990s, as a way of testing out all possible molecular combinations to match a target. It was a bust. Most have now moved back towards a more rational model based around deep understanding, experience and intuition.
3. Impulsive and Flighty Consumers. Watch how your fellow commuters juggle their smartphone, tablet and Kindle. Or marvel at your teenager doing his homework. With multiple sources of stimulation available at our fingertips, the capacity to focus and concentrate on a specific activity is falling. This has implications for how firms manage their internal processes – with much greater emphasis being placed on holding people’s attention than before. It also has massive consequences for how firms manage their consumer relationships, as the traditional sources of “stickiness” in those relationships are being eroded.
4. A little learning is a dangerous thing. We are quick to access information that helps us, but we often lack the ability to make sense of it, or to use it appropriately. Doctors encounter this problem on a daily basis, as patients show up with (often incorrect) self-diagnoses. Senior executives second-guess their subordinates because their corporate IT system gives them line-of-sight down to detailed plant-level data. We also see this at a societal level: people believe they have the right to information that is in the public interest (think Wikileaks), but they are rarely capable of interpreting and using it in a sensible way. The broader point here is that the democratization of information creates an imbalance between the “top” and “bottom” of society, and most firms are not good at coping with this shift.
Consequences for individuals and for firms:
So what are the consequences of a business world with “too much information”? At an individual level, we face two contrasting risks. One is that we become obsessed with getting to the bottom of a problem, and we keep on digging, desperate to find the truth but taking forever to do so. The other risk is that we become overwhelmed with the amount of information out there and we give up: we realise we cannot actually master the issue at hand, and we end up falling back on a pre-existing belief. For example, in debates about fracking or genetically modified food, very few people get to grips with the scientific data, and even fewer change their views. The challenge for individuals is to steer a course between these twin perils. This puts a premium on an individual’s ability to monitor her own analytical style –knowing when to stop digging, when to ask an expert, and when to rely on personal experience and judgment.
For firms, there are three important consequences. First, they have to become masters of “attention management” – making sure that people are focused on the right set of issues, and not distracted by the dozens of equally-interesting issues that could be discussed. A surplus of information, as Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon noted, creates a deficit of attention. That is the real scarce resource today.
Second, firms have to get the right balance between information and judgment in making important decisions. As Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, observed, there are two types of decisions: “there are decisions that can be made by analysis. These are the best kind of decisions. They are fact-based decisions that overrule the hierarchy. Unfortunately there’s this whole other set of decisions you can’t boil down to a math problem.” One of the hallmarks of Amazon’s success, arguably, has been its capacity to make the big calls based on judgement and intuition.
Finally, the ubiquity of information means a careful balance is needed when it comes to sharing. Keeping everything secret isn’t going to work anymore – but pure transparency has its risks as well. Firms have to become smarter at figuring out what information to share with their employees, and what consumer information to keep track of for their own benefits.
The bottom line
For the last forty years, firms have built their competitive positions on harnessing information and knowledge more effectively than others. But with information now ubiquitous and increasingly shared across firms, these traditional sources of advantage are simply table-stakes. The most successful companies in the future will be smart about scanning for information and accessing the knowledge of their employees, but they will favour action over analysis, and they will harness the intuition and gut-feeling of their employees in combination with rational analysis.
Check out my latest interview (video) with Prof. Karl Moore (@profkjmoore) posted in The Globe and Mail (@globeandmail)
You can read my latest interview about the Sustainability Agenda in the latest issue of the Business Strategy Review (Summer 2014) here: