The tepidity of social responsibility

Like last year, the 2012 SEG Forum was the only organized event on the morning of Day 1. And like last year, it was thinly attended. The title wasn't exactly enticing — Corporate and Academic Social Responsibility: Engagement or Estrangement — and to be honest I had no idea what we were in for. This stuff borders on sociology, and there's plenty of unfamiliar jargon. Some highlights:  

  • Part of our responsibility to society is professional excellence — Isabelle Lambert
  • At least one company now speaks of a 'privilege', not 'license', to operate — Isabelle Lambert
  • Over-regulation is harmful, but we need them to promote disclosure and transparency — Steve Silliman
  • The cheapest, easiest way to look like you care is to actually care

What they said

Mary Lou Zoback of Stanford moderated graciously throughout, despite being clearly perturbed by the thin audience. Jonathan Nyquist of Temple University was first up, and told how he is trying to get things done with $77k/year grad students using $50k grants when most donors want results not research.

Isabelle Lambert of CGGVeritas (above) eloquently described the company's principles. They actually seem to walk the walk: they were the only corporation to reply to the invitation to this forum, they seem very self-aware and open on the issue, and they have a policy of 'no political donations' — something that undermines a lot of what certain companies say about the environment, according to one questioner. 

Steve Silliman of Gonzaga University, a hydrologist, stressed the importance of the long-term view. One of his most successful projects has taken 14 years to reach its most impactful work, and has required funding from a wide range of sources — he had a terrific display of exactly when and how all this funding came in. 

Finally Michael Oxman, of Business for Social Responsibility, highlighted some interesting questions about stakeholder engagement, such as 'What constitues informed consultation?', and 'What constritutes consent?'. He was on the jargony end of things, so I got a bit lost after that.

What do you think, is social responsibility part of the culture where you work? Should it be? 

A footnote about the forum

"Social responsibility has become a popular topic these days", proclaimed the program. Not that popular, it turned out, with less than 2% of delegates showing up. Perhaps this is just the wrong venue for this particular conversation — Oxman pointed out that there is plenty of engagement in more specific venues. But maybe there's another reason for the dearth — this expert-centric, presentation-driven format felt dated somehow. Important people on stage, the unwashed, unnamed masses asking questions at the end. There was a nod to modernity: you could submit questions via Twitter or email, as well as on cards. But is this format, this approach to engagement, dead?

There's nothing to lose: let's declare it dead right now and promise ourselves that the opening morning of SEG in 2013 will be something to get our teeth into.