I thought I had a pretty good command of the English Language. Now my vocabulary is enriched with terms such as Convergent CSR, Divergent CSR, mimetism, institutional isomorphism, coercive isomorphism, mimetic isomorphism, normative isomorphism (geez, don't these isomorphisms breed fast?), causal ambiguity, rivalry mitigation and others that I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of.
Where do all these terms appear in the same place ? Not in my personal journal, that's for sure. Perhaps in a Guide to Ultimate Scrabble Excellence ? Or in the manual of Easy Words for Dyslexics? Or in a dictionary for the monosyllabically-challenged ? Maybe. However, I found them in an article by Nicola Misani, of Bocconi University, Italy, entitled "Convergent and divergent corporate social responsibility" which appears as a chapter in the outstanding book Innovative CSR , edited by Celine Lalouche, Samuel O. Idowu and Walter Leal Filho, published by Greenleaf. Aside from the tongue-tying linguistics, this is one of the most original and illuminating articles I have read on CSR in a long time. Basically, the author asks the question: why do most companies content themselves with "convergent" CSR when the real opportunities lie in the pursuit of "divergent" CSR ? A really interesting question. Let me explain the terminology, or rather quote the author's explanations:
"Convergent CSR: Firms adopt practices that have already been adopted by rivals in the industry, or are within their reach, or collaborate with these rivals (and with stakeholders) to develop new practices that will be open to other adopters."
"Divergent CSR: Firms try to use social performance to obtain comptetitive advantage; these firms want to be unique in their CSR practices and build barriers to imitation by rivals in order to protect the profits they expect from their position. "
In other words, joining the club versus leading the pack. WIth Convergent CSR, firms are not trying to achieve a competitive advantage, but pursuing another objective. With Divergent CSR, the motivations are clearly related to business advantage. Nicola Misani offers six possible strategic reasons that Companies go the convergence route. These reasons include, yes, you guessed it - isomorphism in its various guises, the most basic being that "firms need legitimacy in order to attain their ends" and therefore choose to align themselves with the social perception of what is appropriate corporate behaviour. Another suggested reason is bandwagons - "responsible firms may be tempted to seek safety in numbers and emulate the practices adopted by their rivals". Another interesting reason is "rivalry mitigation" Nicola Misani claims that "socially responsible firms may not want to be too responsible" ie. they want to do just enough to gan the benefits but not enough to involve them in any risk. And more. Clearly, I cannot reproduce the entire article. You will have to buy the book...or buy the Chapter PDF download :).
So back to the basic question. If a Company is going to adopt a CSR approach - why be content with convergence? A little more effort and divergence pays off. I once talked about CSR as a brand. The CSR program of a business having its own identity and core message, such as M&S Plan A, or GE Ecomagination, or Timberland Earthkeepers. These branded CSR programs are clearly divergent and they are also clear winners that I believe produce value for their moms and dads. Nicola Misani's analysis of the causes and consequences of convergent CSR is fascinating. And as this is a Reporting blog, I will end up by saying that, as I read CSR reports, I will be looking for evidence of divergence that will point to a more mature and sustainable way of doing business.
Chunky Monkey anyone ? Only if you promise not to overdo the isomorphism.
elaine cohen is co-founder and co-CEO of Beyond Business, a leading social and environmental consulting and reporting firm. Visit our website at www.b-yond.biz/en