Monday, July 22, 2013

The future of CSR

Our collaborator on the forthcoming second edition of our CSR textbook, Laura Spence from Royal Holloway, University of London, has been musing recently on the future of CSR. So we asked her to pen another guest post for us about where she thinks things are going. Here's what her crystal ball says...
I’ll let you into a secret. Sometimes, as I travel from conference to conference, I wonder if we are getting anywhere at all in the study of CSR.  As the field has developed, there are some topics and theories which have somewhat of a stranglehold on our thinking. With every new conference presentation that yet again tackles the well-trodden ground of large, Western multinational corporations, corporate social performance, stakeholder theory, or institutional theory, my heart sinks a little, though I also work on some of these. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of good work on these topics coming out, but we are in danger of throwing all our energies at an ever-decreasing circle of subjects when there is so much more out there to do. Couple that with the assessment by some that CSR has come to its natural end and it is sometimes hard to stay positive for the future of CSR.

And yet, in the last few weeks, I have had to rethink my doubts. It all started with an event on Gender and Responsible Business at Nottingham University’s International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility. Somehow CSR – of all subjects - has more or less overlooked the gender perspective despite some pretty long standing powerful contributions.  Every presentation I saw contributed something refreshing, different and relevant, demonstrating a huge potential to shine a new light on CSR in the future. It is well worth joining the continuing conversation through the LinkedIn group: ‘Gender & Responsible Business Network’.

The inclusion of marginalized voices was to my delight also explored at the ‘Corporate Responsibility: Towards Inclusive Development’ stream at the European Group of Organization Studies (EGOS) conference in Montreal.  In a field dominated by US and European corporate perspectives and authors, this stream surfaced a young, vibrant and diverse group of scholars working on regions that constitute most of the world but a small proportion of CSR publications. We heard about CSR in Asian, South American, Middle Eastern and African countries, drawing on important cultural, political, economic, social and religious perspectives that are usually sidelined. Is the future of CSR in Europe or North America? I doubt it. The level of social need, different governmental roles, critical challenges and changing economic structures in developing and emerging economies should encourage us to look well beyond the usual contexts.

And I was not the only one pondering the future of CSR. At a special workshop at the EGOS conference, Christopher Wickert (VU University Amsterdam) and Arno Kourula (University of Amsterdam) led a focused workshop ‘Debating the Future of CSR’. Bringing together PhD students and early career researchers (and let’s face it, they should be the ones that determine what’s around the corner) with a few more established academics, we had the opportunity to really dig in to three key aspects: contextuality in CSR; theoretical criticism of CSR; and stakeholder perspectives and marginalized voices in CSR. The topics discussed were wide ranging and included the role of non-governmental organizations, CSR as a political project, activism, the role of the state, frustration with the ‘business case’, the performativity of language around CSR, listening to the polyphony of  voices and the dangers of stereotyping.  I really hope that the participants at the workshop go on to publish on some of these perspectives in more detail – it will make fascinating reading.  

Some of these waves of CSR research are captured in an earlier Crane and Matten blog and a brand new chapter in our second edition of CSR: Readings and Cases in A Global Context (Crane, Matten & Spence, Routledge, July 2013). There we add to the debate on the future of CSR in terms of new business models such as social entrepreneurship and social innovation, the influence of new social movements, forms of regulatory rather than voluntary CSR, the outcomes of CSR, and the positive prospects of CSR as a profession and an academic subject.   

So, as summer starts in earnest in the UK, I am optimistic for the future of CSR. If space is made for the rising waves of research I have been privileged to see in the last few months, you never know, we might actually make a difference. 

Laura J. Spence

Photo by eelcowest. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Top 10 tips for publishing CSR research in top journals

Contrary to popular belief, most university faculty don't spend the whole summer lounging on the beach or sitting in the garden. For most of us, summer is the time when we can really focus on our research without the usual distractions of teaching and university administration.

Although many academics do this research because they enjoy it, it is also a critical part of our role. Success in publishing our research is often the number one reason why we get hired or not, or whether we get that promotion or pay rise that we're after. Publish or perish is a mantra that is very real for many of us.

Publication, however, is no easy matter. There is great competition for space in the best scholarly outlets, like high ranked journals and prestigious book publishers. Those of us doing research on corporate responsibility issues, whether CSR, business ethics, business and sustainability, or whatever else sometimes struggle to meet the kinds of standards expected by these outlets. This is not because we're any less smart than other researchers, but we do have a complicated subject that doesn't always lend itself very well to the demands of the top tier journals. There is also just simply lot to learn about the publishing process, especially for PhD students, junior researchers or those relatively new to the demands of publishing their work in premier English-language journals.

As a result of this, we often find ourselves giving advice to other CSR researchers, especially at the many workshops and conferences that crop up over the summer. We tend to tailor this advice to the different audiences we speak to, but we also thought that it might be helpful to give a more general list of top tips that anyone doing work in the area could hopefully learn something from. Our thoughts are particularly relevant to publishing in high ranked management journals, but most of the lessons translate beyond this. Let us know if you find them helpful or if you have your own suggestions, just add them in the comment section below.

1. Make time for research. This is the critical starting place. Good work requires a substantial investment of time and energy and lots of researchers spend a lot of their time on teaching and service. In the CSR space, in particular, many of us are so passionate about our subject that our available research time is easily eaten up by working with our students or lobbying our colleagues to include more CSR content in their courses. Carving out the necessary space and time for research is critical. There are no shortcuts.

2. Find great co-authors … but select them carefully. OK, so maybe there is one shortcut: finding other people to do some of the research with you. But co-authorships go wrong as often as they go well. So choosing carefully is critical. Find people with complementary skills, who understand the subject in different but related ways to you. Remember, CSR issues are complicated, so just as we always advocate partnership by organizations, so too do we need to partner to understand a phenomenon. But if we go too broad, we risk losing the all-essential focus that the top journals aim for. Our no.1 piece of advice for selecting co-authors - find someone you can go for a drink or a coffee with and feel energized afterwards.
3. Write for a clearly defined audience, with a carefully targeted paper, that joins a specific conversation. Research doesn't happen in a vacuum. Who do you want to read your work? No, really, who exactly do you have in mind? What have they written about your subject? Answer these questions and join an ongoing conversation rather than trying to start a whole new one. It may seem like CSR issues are new and exciting, but many of the issues, problems or concepts that we find interesting have been addressed by others in other ways. Some scholars live by the maxim that if you think an idea is really new then you probably just haven't read enough. So make sure you do read enough and make sure that your work is crafted for a particular audience. If it helps, think of it like a product that has to fill a clearly defined need.

4. Be clear what the research gap is that you are aiming to fill, and what your contribution is. Probably the number one reason that editors reject corporate responsibility papers is that they don't make a clear enough contribution. Typically, this means, a contribution to academic theory. So nailing down the research gap and deciding for yourself what your unique contribution is will reap rewards. Especially if the contribution is one valued by those other researchers that you're aiming to write for.

5. Try as far as possible to be theory rather than phenomenon driven. This is one that many CSR researchers struggle with. We're doing research in this area because we find the issues themselves fascinating. This means we tend to phenomenon-driven. But the higher ranked journals all typically look for a theoretical contribution and so they expect the research they publish to be theoretically-driven. So if you don't want to take too many risks with that limited amount of research time you have, work out how to make the translation from phenomenon to theory and start as you mean to go on.

6. Different contexts have to be theoretically distinctive (revising/extending theory) not just new applications of existing theory. This is particularly relevant for those doing research on or in particular countries or industries, which is so common in the CSR field just because it has become so ubiquitous. The key thing to remember here is that just because no one has done research on your country or industry before, that doesn't mean it needs to be done now. If you're following the advice we've already laid out, you'll be thinking - what is it about this country or industry that is sufficiently different that it renders existing theories inadequate to explain it. If you can answer this, you have a shot at extending or revising that theory rather than just applying it to a new area. And that's what the reviewers will be looking for.

7. Test out your ideas with working papers, conference presentations, workshops, etc – do not submit too early. Research is a process, and the great thing about that is there are lots of opportunities to get feedback on what you're doing before its too late. Take your time to see if your ideas have the potential for top tier publication before you commit to doing the research. And then as you're doing the research get feedback from the best people you can about your emerging results. Finally, circulate your work and get feedback before you submit to that tier 1 journal that rejects 90% of the papers it receives. You want to be as sure as possible that you're going to be in the rarefied 10%.

8. Beware of avoidable ‘incompetence cues’ . This is one that the former editor of Business Ethics Quarterly, Gary Weaver, always explained very convincingly. If editors and reviewers find sub-standard English, spelling mistakes, poor referencing, formatting that doesn't meet the journal's specification and other minor errors in a paper (especially in the first few pages) you are going to activate the editor's 'incompetence schema'. That is, he or she will already be thinking that you're in some way incompetent before they even get to evaluating your ideas. Don't risk it. Get the basics 100% right, every time, without fail. This will give your work the best chance it can of being judged in the way you want it to be.

9. Remember that reviewers are there to help you improve your work. The community of researchers around CSR and business ethics are a pretty collegiate and supportive group. But it can feel like completely the opposite when you're holding three reviews which all appear to rip your work to shreds ... but are still offering you the chance to resubmit something different (well, actually, better) in the future. But believe us, they do actually want to see your work published, so you just need to work with them, not against them. The most successful researchers spend almost as much time on revising their work as they on the initial preparation. Take criticism on the chin and use it constructively as just another stage in the research process. In the end, you'll appreciate the advice because it almost always improves your research if you're working with a good journal and good reviewers.

10. Get used to criticism and rejection – and don’t forget the bigger picture of why you want to publish in the first place. We all get bucketloads of criticism and we all get our work rejected. Its a part of the job as a researcher. Some people say that if you're not getting rejected from time to time, you're not aiming high enough. So don't take it personally. And remember, the reason you're putting yourself through all this is that you think the issues are important and that you have ways of thinking about it that need to be read. The best journals are regarded a good because they have a higher impact than the others. If you really want your work to be read by other researchers - if you want to leave a mark on the field - you'll need to face the trials and tribulations of aiming for the best journals. So grow a hard skin along with that smart mind and warm heart.