Treating Corporate Social Responsibility as a Management Idea

A curious set of coincidences and some internet sleuthing led professor Lutz Preuss to write the paper “Corporate social responsibility as management idea: Between universal applicability and context dependency,” published in Competition & Change. Here, Preuss describes the research, fieldwork, and revisions behind the paper.

In about 2010, I started to notice that many companies, particularly in the United Kingdom but also beyond, describe their corporate social responsibility (CSR) engagement in terms of marketplace, workforce, community, and environment. I began to notice these very specific words repeatedly used in the CSR reports of British Airways, UPS, and the Royal Bank of Canada. This struck me as odd: why always these four words? I began to conduct systematic searches of the internet to see whether I could find out where these words had come from. My detective work finally led me to UK-based business association Business in the Community (BITC), whose guide Winning with Integrity – A Guide to Social Responsibility suggested the four terms as material areas for CSR.

Over time, my internet searches led me to identify 368 different organizations worldwide who applied the four terms to their own CSR activities. These organizations were mainly businesses but also included NGOs, public sector bodies, and intergovernmental organizations. Now, 368 organizations might not sound all that impressive, but bear in mind that I only included cases in my analysis that applied these four terms verbatim. In all likelihood, these are but the tip of the iceberg.

Interestingly, the country with the second most occurrences of the four terms, after the United Kingdom, is Malaysia. It was actually the Malaysian stock exchange who promoted its CSR Framework for Malaysian PLCs with “CSR focal areas environment, workplace, community, marketplace.” The four terms probably entered Malaysia via Hong Kong, as the Malaysian stock exchange had commissioned a Hong Kong-based consultancy to undertake a survey of the state of CSR in the country. Yet, where Malaysian companies ascribe the terms to a source at all, they refer to the Malaysian stock exchange rather than BITC; in other words, in Malaysia the origins of the CSR framework are completely lost.

That was my fieldwork prior to submission. Once I submitted the article, the revision process took me into a different direction again. I had discussed the diffusion of the BITC framework through treating CSR as a management idea. My reviewers encouraged me to hone in deeper into this concept. At this stage, I came across Abrahamson and Piazza’s argument that a management idea can be seen as consisting of “nested levels of abstraction.” It struck me that the management idea CSR could equally be seen in these terms, namely relatively abstract “management rhetorics,” such as defining CSR as causing no harm, within which more prescriptive “management models” reside, most notably the business case for CSR, which contain concrete “management techniques,” like BITC’s framework.

Analyzing the international diffusion of BITC’s framework led me to understand better how these three levels influence each other. For example, emphasis, at the level of the management technique, on re-packaging sector-specific knowledge into standardized solutions seems to feed into a discourse, at the level of management rhetoric, that social responsibility is a general organizing principle for organizations from any sector. In other words, it is not necessarily any one level on its own that gives CSR its appeal; rather its persuasiveness lies in the way the different levels of abstraction reinforce each other.

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Lutz Preuss

Lutz Preuss is a professor in strategic management at Kedge Business School. His research focuses on managerial cognition in the context of tensions between economic and non-economic aspects of business, the application of paradox theory to management, international differences in corporate social responsibility, fit in corporate responses to scandals as well as responsible management education.

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