Locating old practices in new concepts

Updated: Nov 13 2005, 05:30am hrs
One of the more interesting and significant buzzwords emerging out of the globalisation and privatisation paradigm of the 1990s has been corporate social responsibility (CSR). Like globalisation itself, CSR was not entirely a new notion but it slowly crept into the corporate lexicon and then suddenly erupted and before long there was a rash of writings, conferences and workshops. What is fascinating about the global CSR debate is who crafted and led it. Institutions like the International Business Leaders Forum, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Conference Board, Business for Social Responsibility and others were the initial pioneers of getting CSR from deeds to words. The common thread between these organisations is that they are all corporate member institutions based in the western world! A case of large corporations recognising the need for humanising capital before others did So, the contributions from non-corporate institutions from the developing world have been almost negligible while these are arguably where the great challenges to the role of business in society lie.

The other interesting feature about CSR was its practice long preceded its con- ceptual framework. This is perfectly understandable because in many cases, companies and industries were reacting to their stakeholder pressures rather than being proactive. However, this meant that the academic rigour came in much later.

India has a long tradition of companies responding to society and it had two broad characteristics. For one, it tended to be less a corporate activity and more a manifestation of the owners personal philanthropy channelled through the corporation. This practice still continues and some argue that the C in CSR does not stand as much for corporate but for CEO! The second was that its drivers were internal and owner-driven, and it, therefore, tended to be philanthropic and community-focussed. This too is a legacy that still prevails as many companies still see CSR as the old corporate philanthropy wine in a new bottle hence the fact that few Indian companies practise it strategically and systematically to this day.

In India too, academia has been lagging behind the practice of CSR and hence a book on CSR in India coordinated by a leading business school like Management Development Institute is a very welcome addition to the sparse literature one sees on the subject in India. There have been attempts in the past of introducing CSR in business school curriculum Partners in Change (a non-profit working on CSR since 1995) has been attempting to do this for several years but the stumbling block has been a paucity of readings and Indian case studies. This publication, result of a multi-stakeholder project involving amongst others CII and UNDP should fill this gap.

Excel Books;
Rs 375; Pp 534
The book is divided into two sections. The first section, called the Theory of CSR, has six chapters, each written by a separate set of authors, some of whom are better known students of CSR. The second section consists of case studies written by faculty members from business schools in India who participated in this project and, are possibly meant to be used for classroom discussions. All cases are rooted in India and cover a range of companies in terms of industry, size and location.

The first section on the theory of CSR covers a lot of ground in that it provides the reader a snapshot view of the global practices of CSR, elegantly discusses the link between ethics and CSR, helps understand who a firms stakeholders are and provides a framework to address them and deliberates on the need of the relevance of value-based curriculum in business schools. However the language is inconsistent and many ideas are repeated. Also some critical discussions and issues seem to fall between the cracks such as a set of descriptions (if not definitions) of what is CSR is it corporate philanthropy or something more How does CSR get institutionalised in a corporation so that it does not remain the preserve of the CEO but is more widely owned and practised How do the realities and contradictions of a country like India inform the global CSR debate How can smaller enterprises also be socially responsible instead of it being the sole preserve of the Tata Steels of this country

The first chapter is wide in its coverage and provides important knowledge but its staccato style made it hard reading; it also sacrifices depth for width and could have been more related to India.

The second chapter is written in a more relaxed and flowing style and has some interesting insights. The authors of third chapter seemed to be unsure about whether they were to write something more conceptual or more like a practical toolkit and the end result was something in between.

Chapters 4 and 6, though insightful and well written, seemed to suffer from the fact that its contents had been talked about in some form in the previous chapters.

The second section has excellent case studies. Less known cases could have been featured instead of worn out Tata Steel! Cases like The Times of India, Titan, Hindustan Lever (despite the author not being as neutral as he should have been), Agarwal Minerals and Polyhydron bring up some excellent dilemmas. Others like Aviva, Bilt and NTPC are helpful in that they show some good practices that can be emulated. The rest seemed a bit out of place. Some of the cases went into unnecessary details, which could have been edited out, but it is preferable to provide more information than less!

The writer is executive director (India), American India Foundation.