An informed and thought-provoking analysis of what lies behind the headlines and headaches of business ethics and corporate social responsibility
Sunday, July 11, 2010
The Human Factor
After two weeks a final reflective moments on the Summit are in place. You might have got it by now that, yes, I am by and large optimistic about the Global Compact and in particular the Summit. On reflection, much of it comes from the one to one interactions I had during the event.
I already mentioned Peter Solmssen, Executive VP and General Counsel at Siemens. My first question in meeting those guys always was why on earth they cut out two days of their busy schedule to hang out at this conference. For him it was about giving the corporate world a 'face'. Having an 'intelligent conversation' between parts of society which normally don't talk to each other – business, government, civil society, academia – for him was one of the benefits of this meeting. And I could so see it – not only in the very open, relaxed and engaging way we chatted about these issues, but also in the way he took part in the conference.
While Peter represents a big multinational, most of the UNCG members – and in fact most of businesses globally – are SMEs. One of the impressions I took away that the cliché we sometimes have of business people can be totally wrong. We often see them as profit hungry machines. But many of them are in fact passionate about creating something, passionate about their contribution to society, their communities and their employees. On that note, the CEO of one of the Argentinean members of the Compact impressed me a lot. Gustavo Grobocopatel is the co-founder of a large Agrobusiness in Argentina and most of all, he stroke me more as an intellectual, and as he admitted somewhat tongue-in-cheek, an accidental entrepreneur. His rationale for supporting the Compact and being at the Summit was that he thinks the world 'needs new governance'. A system of governance where business is ready to live up to its responsibilities.
Of course, not all attendees were of this calibre. As Lord Hastings, the 'Master of Ceremonies' ironically intimated in his introduction to Thursday afternoon's half-empty auditorium of roundtables, some participants had succumbed to the temptations of 'supporting the local economy' – i.e. going shopping in New York. Fair enough, these guys would just turn up once, make sure they had signed in, and otherwise take the Summit as what I saw it in my earlier blog: a ceremonial exercise which boosts their PR. In this category I would put someone like Ali Koç, third generation of the Koç family and in charge of some of their vast business empire in Turkey, which boasts a remarkable record in philanthropy. That's why I was keen on talking to him. When I approached him, the terror of speaking to a 'journalist/blogger' was galvanizing his eyes. After haplessly communicating to his PR-girl, he mumbled something of 'having a flight to catch' and walked off, making some rude comments about journalists these days. He told me to send him my questions by email. Of course he never replied.
So leaning back, the Global Compact in my book counts as what I have referred to as 'mimetic processes' in the proliferation of CSR: it becomes a legitimate 'business' by virtue of many players in the organizational field engaging in a specific management practice. By providing a platform of visible exchange and commitment the UNGC has made it just 'cool', to put it bluntly, for companies to practice CSR.
The 'cool' factor, finally, also explains another remarkable feature of the UNGC: the Summit would not be possible without a veritable little army of volunteers, interns and alumnis of the GC, who invested much of their time for free to make the Summit happen. I hung out with them at the after party in a bar on 58th at the end of the Summit. Certainly in this generation of future business leaders, government officials or NGO activists the legitimacy of responsible business practices need no further discussion. Even to the extent, as one of them told me tongue-in-cheek after a few pints, that the UN Global Compact would struggle itself to live up to one or two of its principles on labour, in particular the 'fair wages' bit. But looking at the happy crowd dancing away to the remarkable one man band that evening, I can solemnly swear to bear witness to the fact that it definitely was not into the 'forced labour' category...