A Model CSR Curriculum

In a March 4 article, the Wall Street Journal noted that a growing number of business schools are working with companies to develop social responsibility and sustainability curricula. Then the article goes on to say that some students complain that jobs in the field are scarce.

The truth is that jobs that go by the label of “social responsibility manager” or “sustainability officer” may indeed be scarce (a lot of jobs are when you are dealing with 10% unemployment), but knowing about these issues is still important, isn’t it?

I’d be curious what you think students should know.  If it were up to me, these are some of the topics that I hope an advanced curriculum would cover.

First, I would start with the business case.  Too many companies complain that people trying to get into the CSR field don’t understand how it fits into the profit and loss statement.  How do ethical management practices help the firm make money and stay in business for the long-term? 

If students can’t answer that basic question, they shouldn’t even bother trying to go into business.

Second, I know this isn’t fashionable, but I would devote the next part of the curriculum to understanding the history of business and how we got to this point in terms of various attitudes toward business.  Why does it matter that big European businesses were originally grants from the crown, whereas American companies were mostly built bottom-up?  What do Catholicism, Protestantism or Bismarck’s social welfare state have to do with business conditions in modern Europe?  What is Islamic business practice?  How do the experiences of the Meiji restoration, the Open Door policy, and British imperial trade practices, affect Asian attitudes toward nationalism, capitalism, culture, and progress? 

Think it doesn’t matter? 

Ask any western company doing business in Japan or China about non-tariff trade barriers or any American company trying to set up branch offices across Europe or the Middle East. 

Third, I would move into a discussion of the firm, the political value chain, and debates over different business models.  Too many business people don’t realize how vulnerable their business models are to outside forces or even appreciate why.  This is where students in this field can prove their indispensability. 

They should know about the tools at their disposal, the key constituencies they need to work with, the benefits they can deliver, and the threats they need to manage.  This would go way beyond philanthropy and community investment to volunteerism, board placement, advocacy, communications, public-private partnerships, social media outreach, stakeholder webs, alliance systems, codes of conduct, recognition and prizes, and a host of other tools and tactics.

They would learn about competitor proxies, comprehensive campaigns, flash mobs, and third-party boycotts. They would never read a newspaper or look at an advocacy campaign the same way again.  Not that I would want them to become cynical, but they’d have a whole new appreciation for the phrase: “cui bono” (who benefits?).

On a more abstract level, there would be a whole section on understanding concepts like “the tragedy of the commons,” “externalities,” “public choice,” and behavioral economics.  “Black swans,” “systems thinking,” “trust substitutes,” “network effects,” and other concepts would help them make sense of urban design, social media, and sustainable development challenges.

There would be extensive study of best practices, lessons learned, and CSR cases.  How can the argument about obesity be a positive gamechanger for the food industry?  What does the “locavore” movement mean for energy and transportation firms that specialize in supply chain logistics?  What do you do if a military coup happens?

Fourth, students in this field should learn about the developmental challenges they face.  Businesses don’t operate in a vacuum.  What are the political, social, and environmental factors that affect business? What are sustainable business practices? How can businesses positively interact with their eco-systems? 

In my class, students would learn about legacy issues and how they might affect current business practices.  They would also study future trends so that they can anticipate curve balls that might be headed their way.  They would study alternative business models, public-private partnerships, b-corporations, social entrepreneurs and other non-traditional business arrangements.

Finally, they would learn about the various metrics and measurement debates around social value and economic value. 

By the time they were done, students with this kind of grounding would be well equipped to use social capital management, stakeholder relationship, and long-term business development tools to grow revenues in current and new markets, improve productivity, and reduce costs, regardless of whether they go into finance, marketing, HR, operations, or any other business discipline.

What other skills and aptitudes do you believe business students should learn?  If you could develop a model curriculum to share with a business school, what would you include?  Let us know.