Thursday, March 27, 2014

A practitioner's reflections on the problems of shared value

After our article on shared value came out in the California Management Review, and we published our last blog piece summarizing our critique, we've had a lot of response from various academics and practitioners in the corporate responsibility field. In fact, we've probably had more emails, comments and calls on this one article than we've had on anything else we've ever published. It has clearly struck a nerve. In the main, these responses have been very positive, suggesting that a lot of people have just been waiting for an article like this to come out. Here's just a smattering of some of the responses we've received (you can also read the comments to our blog post for more):

"This is a long over due excellent and comprehensive critique on the overly optimistic and shallow CSV framework that doesn't really address the real trade offs required to get to sustainable development."

"Good on you for re-framing this topic in a manner that more fully reflects the spirit of corporate social responsibility."

"It is some of the most enjoyable reading I have done in a very long time."

"Just read you CMR paper on CSV - well done. It is about time that someone took this idea apart."

Of course, many commentators, even whilst being supportive of our critique, have also pointed out some of the pragmatic benefits of Porter and Kramer's approach, like this one:

"I can see how the win-win wonderland (in Mintzberg's words) could be a diversion, but I wonder how it might crack existing inertias, and/or if any positive momentum could be leveraged for fashioning a more complete framework."

Such considerations of the lifeworld of business is a theme that is addressed in the discussion we have with Porter and Kramer at the end of our article, but is not something that we fully elaborate on. With this in mind, we thought it worthwhile to post here one of the more thoughtful and extended responses we received from a corporate responsibility practitioner. This is from Rory Sullivan, a veteran of the responsible investment community, now working as an independent advisor as well as being a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. He explores some of our points with regard to how CSR and CSV might be seen from a practitioner perspective. We thought they deserved reproducing here as they help to frame an important element of the debate in a constructive way:

"A proper analysis of the concept and value of ‘Creating Shared Value’ has been needed for some time, and your article does an excellent job of setting out the strengths and weaknesses of CSV. I was disappointed that Porter and Kramer failed to engage with the substantive points that you raised; their bludgeon of a response seemed at odds with the nuanced and careful arguments you presented in your article. While I support the broad lines of argument and analysis in your article, I would like to offer some reflections from a practitioner’s perspective:

  • Your discussion of “CSR as a Straw Man” is fair in its treatment of the academic literature (which has argued that CSR should be a corporate strategic priority). However, CSR in practice is quite different. In far too many companies, CSR continues to have limited business relevance (in terms of its influence on strategy or capital allocation) and remains far closer to philanthropy than the theoretical literature suggests (or would like).
  • On the originality of CSV: Your review of the literature ignored the many important practitioner contributions (e.g. by John Elkington, Stuart Hart, CK Prahalad) which have influenced CSR in practice. I suspect that many practitioners see CSV as a glossy reformulation of ideas such as the triple bottom line, rather than as a new framing of the debates around the role of business in society.
  • On the evidence for CSV: One of the key challenges faced by companies in practice is that ideas that work at a local level and at a small scale, may or may not work [in fact, they often don’t] when they are scaled up to the corporate level or when other companies try to replicate the experience. There are various reasons – the generalizability of approaches, the transaction costs, etc of moving to scale, the problems of taking projects and processes from one corporate culture and trying to implement them in another.
  • I’m not convinced by your argument that CSV is based on a shallow conception of the corporation in society. My (personal) reading of the Porter and Kramer article was that it was best understood as an analysis of the corporation in society, where the corporation is taken as the central unit of analysis (perhaps akin to every western individual being at the centre of their own personal narrative). In that frame of reference (which, I accept may not be what they had in mind), the concept of CSV could be interpreted as simply an argument that there are things that companies can do to make them a little more useful to (or a little less harmful) to society."
Plenty of food for thought there. Any more practitioners out there want to throw their two cents in?

Photo by Ross. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this systematic analysis of "shared value." Your critique of includes two elements that are in my view interrelated, and point to a deeper underlying misappropriation of an ethical principle. In Karl Polanyi's analysis, the "dis-embedding" of markets from society involved commoditizing land, labour and capital. He called these "fictions." The risk with shared value is that it extends this commodification to what is at root a relational and ethically rich concept. This fictionalizing of sharing connects to your observation about "shallowness."In relationships and in society, sharing involves much more than reciprocity or mutual benefit. In fact, we only arrive at a shared notion of shared value by factoring in elements from shared purpose, shared memories, and shared sacrifices. For example, any of the various iterations of the Golden Rule imply both a shared stake and shared restraint. This latter aspect of responsibility gets overlooked in the current managerial framing of shared value.


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