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Weekend reading: Good recent FT debate about the pros and cons of “Shared Value”

Ah, bless, if only it was that simple…

I know lot of you out there have read about, and even used, the term “Shared Value” in recent years. 

Some of you have based your corporate approaches to sustainable and responsible businesses on it, or have said you have been influenced by it. 

The fact that a famous figure in business strategy has been helping mainstream responsible business over the last eight years or so is well documented. 

The Financial Times has now published a few interesting articles on the pros and cons of “Shared Value” as a business strategy which may be of interest. I link to them below:

First up is this piece by Andy Crane et. al, a group of well known CSR academics:

Premise of ‘creating shared value’ risks misleading MBA students

Then there’s a piece by another well known CSR business school academic, Thomas Donaldson:

Shared values that are lost in translation

Finally, here’s a piece by Thomas Dyllick, also a business academic:

The opposing perspectives on creating shared value

I leave it to you to pass your own judgements on the topic. All these pieces are worth reading, even if you have to delete your cookies to get around the FT subscription system to do so. 

This terminology debate has been rolling on since at least 2003, when Porter was talking about strategic philanthropy rather than shared value. He then revised his thinking to co-create Shared Value, or Creating Shared Value (CSV).

To me the debate above (which you really should read as this stuff matters) gives rise to two conclusions:

1) Given the well documented shortcomings linked to above, Shared Value is an incomplete, and possibly dangerous paradigm for business on its own. Modern global business activities are increasingly causing important questions to be asked which Shared Value alone cannot answer as it stands. This danger would apply to anyone attempting to draw boundaries around notions of responsible business. That cannot, and should not be done, given how expectations can and do change quite quickly and over time. Here’s one example, there are many others. 

2) It can be helpful as a starting point, given the profile of one of its ‘creators’, for companies who are beginning to explore responsibilities wider than legal compliance and philanthropy. Of these there are many, but like usage of the Global Reporting Initiative guidelines, Shared Value cannot be and is not an end in itself, given the problems that sticking to it alone as a strategy will likely cause a company. This point is important, because Shared Value (or CSV as it is also known) is not like other, defined process-based management techniques, you can’t put the same borders around it and say “right, we’ve done that, let’s stop and look at the results”.

Responsible business is a moveable feast. It always will be. The often-rapid changing expectations on companies reflect how society is evolving as the world improves access to information and generally speaking, becomes wealthier. No buzzword can contain it, and that’s as it should be.