Corporate social responsibility and the challenge of the present

In a year which saw the world gripped by a health crisis with few precedents, the economic and productive fabric was put to the test, as were the social and welfare systems and communities large and small.

The reaction of the business world adopted various tones – of tenacity, solidarity, a will to hold on and sometimes a renewed determination to rise again – in response to the initial unhoped-for loss of its lifeblood. In other cases, including entire sectors whose activities are still halted, businesses were forced to reinvent themselves while we grapple with a new normal to replace the one we used to know and which may no longer be possible, at least for some time.

In both cases, the response has been a modern one, based on tools and working formats that have gone from the realm of possibility to vital, and on a wealth of technological infrastructure that has unquestionably played a leading role.

The substance of the response has demonstrated the validity of a business culture which, by itself, can give a strong characterisation to corporate conduct, provide the building blocks for the capacity to positively regroup in the face of traumatic events such as those of the recent past, and act as a glue to maintain corporate identity.

In such a difficult year – a year marking the sixtieth anniversary of his untimely death – it seems apposite to once again turn to the enlightened and contemporary thinking of Adriano Olivetti and his gentle industry, to explain not only the roots of the relationship between business and society but also to acknowledge the fruits of those precious seeds planted in times when it seemed almost impossible.

It is the humanistic tradition, which could be said to be one of Italy’s greatest achievements, social awareness and a focus on the rights of workers which led Olivetti to say: “I think different1 a century earlier than Steve Jobs.

There is therefore a surprisingly contemporary resonance of the parallels between the events of today and those of the two world wars. It is also worth re-exploring the common legacy represented by that thinking to describe what it takes today to do business with vision and accountability in respect of all aspects impacted by it.

There is a crisis of civility, a social crisis, a political crisis. The broken cogs of society (…) no longer work, and we can’t go back. How can we contribute to building that better world those terrible years of desolation, torment, disaster, destruction and massacres demand of the intellect and hearts of all?

These words could have been written today, capturing the state of mind and concerns of a humanity which again finds itself faced with having its foundations rocked and where existential questions, also in new forms, lead societies to question their values.

We have often written about the philosophical and philosophical-ethical connotations of corporate social responsibility (CSR) which began to emerge in North American corporate tenets in the 1950s. Given the extraordinary current juncture, this year we will leave aside an etymological discussion to focus on to those signs of creative force able to translate many seemingly abstract concepts into reality.

The usual aspects defining corporate responsibility are an entity’s ties to the local area, the effects of industrial advances and the organisation of work on the economic fabric and of innovation on general progress, awareness of environmental issues, equality and non-discriminatory practices. In short, all those notions of acting responsibly which have contributed to the ontological foundation over the last seventy years of not always peaceful debate.

The history of MAG’s business model incorporates important elements of the Italian industrial tradition from its own sector but also more generally. As such, in its more recent progression to modernity, the group has often had to re-assess its founding values, i.e., the guiding principles which constitute its foundation.

This annual self-analysis has often shown that some completely voluntary choices – for instance, anticipatory investments or deploying advanced governance tools, shaping strategies informed by sometimes very long-term programmes, and bolstering relations with the world of universities given the value that they can offer in and for the local areas in which the group operates – have a specific importance that cannot be measured in purely financial terms.

As it belongs to a strategic sector, MAG has been able to operate without closures throughout all months of the reporting period, ensuring suitable, safe working conditions for its employees and contractors – including via working from home – and ensuring the highest levels of health protection at all times. This intense shared challenge of resilience and solidarity has given rise to initiatives highlighting a sense of belonging and an underlying culture that perceives the group as a living organism which fulfils a vital role as a reference point and as progress in action.

This does not take anything away from the spontaneity that medium-sized Italian companies that are perhaps as-yet not highly structured tend to be known for. Quite the opposite, it shows that culture lies in authenticity, which is not data, concepts or ostentation, and is reached via a long, often unspoken journey.

The aspects marking out this culture are precisely those we wish to reiterate on this anniversary. They are the spiritual, scientific and artistic values, the “belief that the ideals of justice cannot be alienated from the persisting contentions”, the conviction that economic conduct cannot be separated from a belief in “man, their divine flame and the possibility of their elevation and redemption”.

Thus the ongoing test of maturity is even more important within the broader context and carries greater significance than an, albeit commendable, one-off donation of a promotional nature.

It could be said that the current economic context offers a different perspective on the notion of shared value, providing a depiction of business as the junction between instances and monads of a value that is not merely financial and which is also distributed unconsciously2.

The Olivetti perspective as defined by Davide Maffei3 should not, however, be interpreted as a creeping socialisation of the principle of free enterprise. On the contrary, it illustrates how the robustness of the principles that guide conduct and the promotion of the interdependence between stakeholders offers a powerful competitive edge.

The concept has also been examined beyond the corporate microcosm to pinpoint the factors and conditions that encourage successful collaborations in the social sector, i.e., the context in which businesses, non-profits, governments and members of the community operate. It deals with the collective impact introduced by John Kania and Mark Kramer, authors of the Stanford Innovation Review which highlighted how strengthening the principles of collective impact increased competitiveness, making advances in social progress possible, as well as the pursuit of economic opportunities.

It was Kramer who, together with Michael Porter in the series of essays published in the HBR4, repeatedly pointed to how businesses can move beyond social responsibility to play a role in creating shared value, for instance, by including social and environmental considerations in their strategies, and gain competitive advantage.

  1. La Repubblica newspaper, 27.04.2013, Federico Rampini, “Olivetti inedito”. 

  2. Image taken from “Essentials of Social Innovation” (iStock/wildpixel) in “Collective Impact”, J.Kania, M. Kramer, Winter 2011, Stanford Social Innovation Review. 

  3. D.Maffei, a founding member of the Edoardo Gellner Architetto Association and director of the “Olivetti Paradigm” and “Olivetti Perspective” feature film. 

  4. Michael Porter, Mark Kramer, “Creating Shared Value”, Harvard Business Review, 2011.