Feel good factors

Today’s employer must be seen to act responsibly in relation to all stakeholders, including its people. Margaret Kubicek looks at the multi-faceted role of learning in corporate social responsibility

The notion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been bandied about in board rooms for years, but pressure is growing on organisations to do more than just pay lip service. Now they must be able to demonstrate that they operate responsibly – environmentally, socially and economically – and they need to incorporate the concept of CSR in all areas of the business.

In March 2004, the Government set out a strategic CSR framework for UK business, encouraging action and progress on the part of UK corporations to address global challenges such as climate change and poverty. Meanwhile, new research by the Work Foundation puts forward this business case for CSR: the most high-performing and profitable businesses are those that build CSR activities into the heart of their strategy.

Nick Isles, one of the report’s authors, says: “The more enlightened approach to CSR is about building it into corporate strategy – and that includes people development.”

The report finds people who feel their employer acts responsibly make a greater contribution to the business and are less likely to leave. It’s the latest in a string of studies suggesting that staff are motivated by much more than salary and financial benefits.

Kevin Money, director of the Centre for Organisation Reputation at Henley Management College, believes employers need to get their people thinking about ‘what they are responsible for and who they are responsible to’. Citing a current survey which indicates that 70 per cent of managers desire ‘more meaning’ from their work, he says: “If you’re going to demonstrate that you’re a responsible company, you need to show that your people know what responsibility is, and you need a training programme to do that.”

Money has devised a model for organisations to measure their CSR performance in relation to each of their stakeholder groups. The measures can then be used as a base for designing improvement programmes.

In other words, organisations can use learning to instil the values and behaviours associated with CSR in their people, in the same way they use learning to address any other skills or behavioural issues in their workforce (see Barclays box).

“The subject of sustainable development is nebulous,” says Phil Case, Barclays’ environmental manager. “Training can give context and background to the big challenges.”

It’s precisely this sentiment that informs a new half-day workshop launched this year by the National Museums of Science and Industry (NMSI) to raise awareness among staff of the role they play in achieving sustainable development (Training Magazine, April 2004). Kathy Young, NMSI’s training and development consultant, says: “The philosophy behind it is the NMSI were the custodians of the industrial revolution but we need to demonstrate the progress we’ve made as a society. There’s a feeling that the next revolution will be around sustainable development, and so we need to be contributing to CSR.”

Team CSR

There is another, subtler way in which CSR and learning are coming together – and the results can be quite powerful. Community-based experiential learning programmes, which make a genuine impact on voluntary groups or charities, are fast becoming the CSR era’s response to the outdoor training revolution of the 1980s.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the lucrative market of team building exercises. Growing numbers of employers are turning their backs on simulated events in the conviction that community-based exercises deliver better results – whether it’s the building of a bridge in a national park, or the establishment of a community business in rural South Africa. “Now there’s a dual track of objectives,” says Steve Wade, an independent training consultant specialising in team performance. “One is the learning and development, and the other is CSR.”

BT is a case in point, developing a ‘pre-formatted away day’ for teams involving a treasure hunt to raise funds for Childline, the primary charity BT supports. “People collect money by going through a number of clues, many with a CSR theme,” says Adrian Hosford, director of BT group social policy. “It’s a proven method, but we’ve weaved in a CSR element too.”

Business in the Community (BITC) helps companies achieve their CSR aims through the use of employee volunteering, such as one-day team challenges to refurbish a community centre, or individual secondments to voluntary groups, enabling people to use and expand their skills in a totally new environment.

“Where years ago employers might have sent their managers off to a teambuilding day that would involve engaging in leisure activities, they’re now looking at challenges that will help them develop their people but have a longer-term impact on the community,” says Maura McClean, employee volunteering manager for BITC Northern Ireland.

BITC-facilitated activities involve extensive pre-event planning between the team doing the training and the participating community partner, says McClean. “The team carries out risk assessments, site visits and any fundraising for materials required, and allocate tasks on the day.”

Cost competitive

Community-based learning isn’t just ‘the right thing to do’- it also creates a ‘mutual advantage’ and is cost effective to boot, says Cathy Donnelly, personnel manager of Belfast-based bar chain Botanic Inns. The company has conducted team challenges to refurbish a play area for children with learning disabilities, and decorate a half-way house for women, among other activities.

“It offers personal development for individuals as they take on new roles and responsibilities, shaping their creative thinking, problem-solving and project management skills,” says Donnelly. “Similar team-building activities which are organised by training organisations would have cost a considerable amount more to finance, and would not have been of benefit to the community.”

The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers is seeing an increase in demand from organisations wanting to run learning programmes – to the point of demand outpacing capacity in some areas. A basic team building programme can cost as little as £2,000 for up to 20 people, according to South East manager, Chris Williams. “If they want something quite sophisticated, we’ll bring in outside consultants – say, for a team that is too averse to risk and is stifling creativity,” says Williams. “Few companies want that. They usually just want to get their hands dirty and have the opportunity to work with their colleagues in a different way.”

Initiatives such as mentoring and secondments are on the increase as well. Therese Pollack has been on secondment for the past two years from her post as a first-level line manager for the Social Security Agency. She still draws her salary from the Northern Ireland Civil Service, but works full-time as a community projects officer for Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland.

“I’m dealing with a much more diverse range of people,” says Pollack. “I had only ever worked with the unemployed. I had never worked with people from other countries, with English language difficulties or learning disabilities.”

That, combined with the budgeting and project management skills she’s picking up, will stand her in good stead should she move to a different Government department.

Every training programme – whatever form it takes – aims for the ‘wow’ factor. The growing popularity of community-based initiatives suggests that organisations needn’t look much further than their own backyard – or pull out all the financial stops – to create a learning experience with lasting power.

The reasons are simple, according to Simon Hamilton, founder and director of consultancy Three Hands. “It’s real, it’s live, and it makes a difference,” he says.

Case study
EXEL’S global adventure

The concept of the ‘global citizen’ is at the heart of Exel plc’s flagship management development programme for senior managers. The two-year Global Business Excellence (GBE) programme aims to accelerate the development of leadership skills and teamwork in the global supply chain management company, which employs 74,000 people in some 120 countries.

“The aspiration is that the next generation of board members may come from this group,” says Wade, who is working with Exel on design and delivery of the programme along with TMA and Real World Learning. “They are high-flyers who are expected to fly higher.”

Like many management development activities, the Exel programme incorporates a team challenge – but with a difference. On one of the seven GBE modules, participants work with a local community in the harsh, unfertile landscape of rural South Africa to set up a market garden business that is handed over to the local community to run for the long-term. They spend three months operating as a virtual team to research and plan the project, followed by a week on site in South Africa.

Exel is active on the CSR front, promoting community-based projects in the UK as well as internationally; while the South Africa module supports that agenda, its primary objective is to provide a ‘gold star’ team-building experience, says management development manager Annette Gillingham. “One of the reasons we decided to go for a community project was that the participants would be far more committed to it than to a made-up activity that was of no tangible value to anybody.”

A year after the first GBE cohort of 24 Exel managers completed their module, the business is thriving, with produce being sold within the community and plans in place to start marketing the business outside the village.  The second GBE cohort is now planning another market garden in a neighbouring community, creating the potential for knowledge-sharing between the two businesses.

The spending on this South African module is far better value for money than any ‘ropes and barrel’-type activities, according to Gillingham. “A year down the line, several people have commented to me that they haven’t forgotten a moment of that week. For me, that indicates success.”

Case study
Barclays’ leaders of tomorrow

At Barclays, the use of learning to support the corporate CSR strategy starts early. The bank’s induction programme for graduate trainees includes a one-day session on how to integrate sustainable development issues into business decision-making. “CSR is central to our strategy, so we need to start with the future leaders of tomorrow,” says environmental manager Phil Case.

To deliver the Professional Practice for Sustainable Development (PP4SD) programme, Barclays works with a partnership comprising the Environment Agency, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Institute of Environmental Sciences and The Natural Step, a sustainable development charity.

The classroom-based training gives graduates an introduction to the concept of sustainable development, and outlines the drivers for change, as well as demonstrating how sustainable development can be integrated into banking decisions. It includes case studies and culminates in a ‘visioning’ exercise 20 years in the future.

“They’re asked to imagine blasting off in a rocket for a weekend in space and what would they take with them,” says Case. “They usually list lots of little luxuries. We then say: You’re blasting off forever – what would you need to take to sustain life?”

The exercise reinforces the notion that everything we need is here on earth but of course, it needs to be managed if it’s to be sustained. The graduates then brainstorm on actions they themselves can implement to help Barclays achieve its CSR goals; they must commit to at least three, which are reviewed three months down the line.

The PP4SD programme is just one way in which learning supports Barclays’ CSR strategy. Senior managers go on the Prince of Wales’s Business & the Environment programme, run by the Cambridge Programme for Industry. Here, they debate the business case for sustainable development with peers, academics and environmentalists. Barclays also boasts a strong record on volunteering, with more than 20,000 of the bank’s 77,000 staff taking part in some form of community activity last year.

Case says CSR – and the training to support it – is ‘part of our future success’. “It’s not all philanthropy – we recognise that it adds value to shareholders.”

Comments are closed.