14.04.2016 | Strategi & ledelse
Indspark: Reflections on studying CSR in Scandinavia
An American impression of Scandinavian CSR
Exactly three weeks ago, I was shoveling fermented mushrooms and lightly boiled potatoes into my mouth.
“Oohmygod. This is soooo good,” I raved to our server, who had just finished describing the dish.
“Actually it’s a bit boring,” he responded. “It’s been on the menu for months. Because we’re restricted by the season, right?”
I was on my second night in Copenhagen, where recently I spent a week learning about corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability during an exchange at Copenhagen Business School (CBS). I chose to spend my last spring break as an MBA studying CSR in Denmark because, with a background in mission-driven organizations and a future in human capital consulting, I saw the program as a fascinating opportunity to study the context into which Scandinavian companies’ successful, much-lauded responsible business practices are woven. And Danish food culture was a delicious place to start.
Emmy has spent seven years in institutional development with mission driven organizations in Beijing and San Francisco. She is currently completing her MBA at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, where she focuses on health sector management and human capital strategy.
The server’s humble response to our effusion, and his deference to environmental impact as a presumed business consideration, became themes throughout the week. Designed around classroom discussions and meetings with CSR leaders, the course offered exposure to innovative CSR tactics in sectors ranging from high fashion to pharmaceuticals. But more importantly, it gave us a sense of how Scandinavia came to be a leader in the CSR space. Over five days of locally grown meals and bicycle commuting, I came to believe more than ever that tactics, while interesting, would be useless out of context. The value of learning about CSR and sustainability in situ comes from experiencing firsthand elements of Scandinavia’s business environment that are uniquely conducive to creating an integrated, thriving CSR culture. And, hopefully, from a subsequently improved ability to effectively build partnerships and navigate systems within our own career contexts to advance responsible business practices at home.
In cover stories from HBR to The Economist, Scandinavian companies’ use of triple bottom line practices has been increasingly celebrated in recent years. Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Sørensen described integrated CSR practices as “nothing but maximizing the value of your company over a long period of time, because in the long term, social and environmental issues become financial issues.” Through research by Mette Morsing et al., I came to understand how recent Danish history, particularly the inclusive labor market strategy of the 1990’s, helped create a business environment that cast Sørensen’s statement in a practical light. Strand and Freeman’s Scandinavian Cooperative Advantage furthered my grasp of how Scandinavia’s tradition of public-private partnerships created a precedent for the sophisticated stakeholder models upon which cooperative, rather than purely competitive, advantages are being built. With these readings as a baseline, I came away with four primary learnings about the context and tactics through which Scandinavian CSR has flourished.
First, the long-term vision represented by Sørensen’s quote. One key organizational tool that has been integral to Novo Nordisk’s CSR platform is the foundation ownership model. Throughout our week in Copenhagen, we learned of several companies that utilized this model of parking equity ownership in a foundation to induce long-term stewardship of resources, and prioritization of diverse stakeholder interests.
Second, the uncompromising intent toward industry leadership. In Porter and Kramer’s “Link Between Competitive Advantage and CSR,” the strategy gurus advocate for a CSR policy that leads with a focus on core business. This idea was visibly practiced at Maersk, which measured its CSR successes using a materiality matrix mapping corporate and stakeholder interests. While this innovative approach fosters collaborative advantage, Maersk prioritizes employee safety above all else, allowing it to allocate resources toward leading its industry in safety standards, and create transparency around all other stakeholder interests.
Third, the importance of culture. In Morsing et al.’s paper, we learned about the ethics rooting Danish corporate culture in a responsible, collaborative ground. Frequently when we inquired about the origins of companies’ CSR initiatives, individuals mentioned founding leaders’ ethics, and a natural progression toward institutionalized initiatives. A former leader from IKEA, when asked how her former employer executed a pioneering review of its supply chain to ensure responsible labor practices without quantifying the cost of an audit, responded, “this way of thinking just suits IKEA.”
Finally, the idea of employee agency. Time and again, we heard leaders refer to a precedent of “creating their own job descriptions.” This may have been the most salient takeaway for many of us, as MBAs returning to or marching toward corporate America. In our meeting with Marianne Barner, formerly of IKEA, we learned that Barner’s launch of what became IKEA’s linchpin CSR initiative was as much a practice in taking initiative as it was leveraging a working environment that encouraged employee agency. Barner saw what was possible within the bounds of the status quo, and pushed them a bit further to accomplish her vision.
Over the week, we got a taste not of what CSR could be, but what it actually is, in a particular part of the world. I affirmed my hunch that there is tremendous value in experiencing the idiosyncratic qualities that allow CSR and sustainability initiatives to thrive in Scandinavia. This course helped reveal the inputs that make Scandinavian CSR a fascinating topic of study, and motivated me to understand the inputs in a different context—corporate America, for example. I began to see the extent to which culture and history matter in this region, and am excited to unearth equivalent drivers in the environments in which I work.