Mar 232010
 

**This post is part of our Social Enterprise Series this week, leading up to the 2nd annual Social Enterprise Symposium on Thursday, March 25.  View the live stream of the event here.

By Daniel Aronson

Interest in corporate responsibility and sustainability is growing exceptionally rapidly: By one measure, interest in sustainability has increased 1,000% in the last five years and over 350% in just the last year. Everyone knows CSR and sustainability are fast growing areas, but when we quantify it, we get an even better sense for just how fast the tide is rising.

With this growth comes a change in the influence of social responsibility, and that is accompanied by – as it must be – a change in how social responsibility is practiced.

The Link to Business Strategy

For many, many years, social responsibility proponents have been trying to make it more central to how businesses think and what they do (I’ve been working on this personally for over a decade, and others have been involved that long or longer). And we have really begun to succeed, with more and more companies making it part of their strategy and operations.

Going along with that is a burgeoning change in how social responsibility is practiced – bringing in the types of practices that are used to tackle the other important issues companies face. For example, companies are doing much more about collecting, analyzing, and reporting information on their social responsibility and sustainability initiatives.

A number of firms have made major strides in this area, such as one Fortune 50 company that recently launched a dashboard showing energy use across the hundreds of buildings they own. This is as is it should be: social responsibility and sustainability are too  important not to be managed to the same high standards as the rest of the business. We must be responsible, and we must also be smart about how we do it.

Closing the Knowledge Gap

Even with this progress, however, there is still a long way to go. IBM research shows that well under half of companies have a good understanding of what their customers expect from them in terms of corporate responsibility. And only a small minority collects CSR-related information as frequently as they need it. To truly ensure responsibility’s place at the table, these gaps in knowledge and information need to be closed, the way they would be if they existed in other parts of the business.

IBM’s Approach

Technology

For today’s businesses, which are complex, global, and fast-moving, this will require technology. For almost 100 years, IBM has helped the world advance through science and technology, and corporate responsibility is no different. We are using our Smarter Planet technology to helping businesses know more, react faster, and use resources more efficiently – for example, a new system helped one group reduce their employees’ carbon footprint from travel and work by 40%.

Engaging Employees

We’re not only using technology to improve operations, but also to improve how corporate decisions reflect people’s deepest values. Over a hundred thousand IBMers were able to participate in a two-day, real-time conversation on what opportunities would reflect the values of IBM – one of which is “innovation that matters for our clients and for the world” – and the needs of our clients.

One of the results of that conversation was IBM’s Big Green Innovations initiative to improve management of alternative energy, carbon, and water as well as to improve modeling of things like pollution, climate, and pandemics. As a result of the passion of our employees and the opportunity to help clients with these important issues, IBM invested $100 million in this initiative.

Having thousands of employees participate in devising an idea to make money and improve the world at the same time shows something about what IBM is like, as does investing $100 million in making it happen. Sometimes overlooked is the fact that the focus areas for Big Green tell you something about IBM too: A penchant for taking on the problems of tomorrow.

When people think about the most pressing environmental problems, they typically think about energy, pollution, and carbon, but it is much less common to include water on that list. But water is not only a big driver of today’s issues (a 10% reduction in the energy used for water would be the equivalent of taking millions of cars off the road) it is going to be an even bigger issue down the road. IBM wants to be a leader in solving not just today’s problems, but tomorrow’s too.

On behalf of the 400,000 employees of IBM, I look forward to talking and working with you to move corporate responsibility, and the world, forward.

Daniel Aronson is the Global Offering Lead, Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainability, Strategy & Transformation, Global Business Services at IBM.  IBM is a gold sponsor of this year’s Social Enterprise Symposium.

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