On the 13th September 2018 over 120 representatives from business, policy makers, third sector organisations, students and academics met in the eclectic Fazeley Studios to participate in a discussion about how to build a better, more responsible future for business. Our inaugural conference condensed into one day the key lessons we have learned from leaders, innovators and experts in the field of responsible business. The valuable insights offered by the speakers and panellists sparked lively debates from the audience and if the volume and quantity of twitter traffic (#ResponsibleBiz18) was anything to go by, led to thoughtful reflection and useful takeways. On the day of the conference we were in the top 10 trending hashtags in Birmingham.
Throughout the day, presentations and speeches were permeated by discussions which invited delegates to ask questions of panels made up of academics, businesses and public institutions on a range of topics from how to measure responsible business to responsible leadership in business and education. Contributions from all our speakers and panellists stimulated a range of animated and thought provoking conversations.
Starting the Conversations
The conference opened with three speakers – Ian Thomson, Director of the Centre, Catherine Cassell, Dean of Birmingham Business School and Fiona Cannon, OBE, Lloyds Banking Group Director of Responsible Business and Inclusion. Ian shared with the audience the purpose, vision and shared values that underpinned the creation of the Centre, summarised the work done and challenges ahead. To help with these challenges he discussed the need for businesses to think in 17 dimensions in order to engage with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and develop new responsible business tools.
In her welcome address, Catherine stressed the strategic importance of responsible business research, teaching and engagement to Birmingham Business School and made a commitment for BBS to lead in this field, developing the school around core responsible business principles.
Fiona Cannon, drew on her experiences at Lloyds in moving beyond CSR and presented a compelling business case for responsible business, demonstrated that real change can happen and that responsible business practices were critical if a business is to prosper in the long term. Drawing on the successful example of Lloyds Banking Group’s ‘Helping Britain Prosper’ plan she emphasised the importance for businesses to have a clear purpose to drive meaningful change. Fiona expressed her hopes that the Centre would inspire “opportunities for new thinking” in the field of responsible business.
Value and Values of Responsible Business
On the ‘Value and Values of Responsible Business’ panel, Fiona Cannon raised a question that she felt still required an answer: “What makes people do things when they know it’s wrong?”, adding that this was an area that management researchers and behavioural scientists could contribute. John O’Brien (Managing Partner, the One Hundred Agency) was critical in the way in which businesses mistakenly used values, mission, strategy, purpose as interchangeable. In his experience purpose drove values, mission or strategy and until there was clarity as to the purpose within the business and beyond, it would difficult for change to occur. Mark Saunders (Professor of Research Methods) shared some of his findings on the importance of trust in business relations and the role of benevolence and integrity. One critical finding was the different processes involved in building trust compared to dissolving distrust. In addition to trust and purpose, Sarindar Sigh Sahota (Trustee Acorns Children’s Hospice) stressed the importance of moral education and including teaching individuals about their responsibility to others from very early ages, through formal and informal education. He noted improvements in overall academic performance was observed in schools that adopted this approach and suggested this improved performance could translate into business contexts. One theme that developed from the audience was the media labelling of a business being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There was consensus amongst the panellist to Fiona Cannon’s observation that: “We need to get to a point where there are no heroes and villains - where businesses are working towards being more ethical, responsible and sustainable as a matter of course”.
Value of Collaboration
The conference showcased examples of business and academia working together to achieve positive responsible business change, high quality research outputs and effective responsible business education. The three cases discussed were the construction of Climate Change and SDG reporting in Danone, Business in the Community’s Responsible Business Tracker and conserving global marine fisheries. Prerequisites to effective collaboration were mutual interest in outcomes, trust building and maintenance, sharing knowledge and expertise, listening, learning and co-production. As part of these partnerships the ability to translate ideas from different contexts was critical, establishing a common language to share and build new knowledge.
Academics had the capacity explore new concepts and reflect on issues, monitor future trends in a way that business practitioners simply did not have the time to do. Laura Palmeiro (Sustainability Integration Director, Danone) described how whilst working with Delphine Gibassier (Centre Senior how she was “my eyes and ears in the outside world”, adding “Delphine monitored each specific topic to tell me what’s going on around the world”. Delphine noted that this knowledge exchange was a two way process and “when trust is built between businesses and academics, the quality of the data you can collect from research is just excellent”. Another benefit from working with an independent academic created a space where both could talk about ‘crazy ideas’ going outside the box, allowing creative conversations to take place that would not be possible with work colleagues. All participants in these sessions agreed that quality responsible research needs quality data from innovative businesses, change agents and others, such as governments and regulators.
Maria-Jose Subiela, Head of Advisory Services and Operations at Business in the Community (BiTC) and Ian Thomson described a similar relationship in designing the Responsible Business Tracker. Delegates were given a sneak preview of this innovative tool, prior to its official launch in the next few weeks. They both commented on the importance of a constructive dialogue with both parties acting as critical friends. Holding joint consultation events with over 200 businesses was felt to have been extremely useful, a genuine synergy of research and years of expertise in driving and influencing change through BiTC’s network and beyond. The Tracker creates a more robust, structured approach to measuring responsible business practice and enabling businesses to fulfil their potential. The Tracker “covers the whole agenda based on the Global Goals” and Maria-Jose added that the tracker could be used globally and is aspirational by design.
Professor Jan Bebbington noted similar relationships, creative processes and mutual learning spaces her big science and big business collaboration to conserve global marine fisheries. This project was on a much larger scale than the other two as it focussed on a global social, economic and environmental crisis. This long term project was driven by a recognition by the largest fisheries businesses that irresponsible actions by their own industry was destroying their long tem viability and producing negative consequences for humanity and the planet. Sharing knowledge and creating a multidimensional, evidence based model of the global fisheries brought to light new risks, but also many possibilities for a solution. What was illuminating was the way in which many negative consequences of irresponsible businesses were interrelated. Over-fishing, forced labour, money laundering, corruption and tax avoidance could be seen to be connected, creating the need for system-wide solution. Developing ways of making these problems more visible and enhancing accountability within the global fisheries was seen as an important part of any solution. However, the complexity of these problems meant that collaboration amongst responsible actors within an industry, third sector, governments and academics was required to make a difference.
Leadership and Responsible Business and Education
On the ‘Responsible Leadership in Business and Education’ panel, Jacqui Francis, Commissioner on the West Midlands Combined Authority Leadership Commission, commented that being a ‘responsible’ leader was about deciding “what kind of leader you want to be”, adding that there was an urgent need to “learn what a good leader looks like” and to move away from the dominant old, male and pale stereotype. Laura Chapman, Director of Equality Training, supported this position but challenged the audience to value each individual, seeing through any perceived physical or mental disability. She defined responsible leadership as a series of actions rather than a title and challenged assumptions of leadership as being about top down command and control: “To me it’s as much about humility and empathy. It’s about consideration and it’s not about fighting to be on top”. Laura added leadership is “when you make a real difference to living, to lives, to people”.
The challenges and importance of measuring responsibility
To kick off this session Laura Palmeiro (Senior Advisor, UN Global Compact), talked about her journey from an accountant within Danone to Senior Advisor on Sustainability Reporting with the UN Global Compact. As part of her journey she outlined some of the innovative changes within Danone, a company widely recognised as a leader in the field of embedding sustainability, from changing corporate form to a B-Corp to its relationships with micro dairy farms across the globe. A key message from her talk was the importance and challenges in embedding the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in business reporting practices in creating for responsible and sustainable businesses: “we have SDGs since 2015. We have a clear agenda, backed by Government, voted by Government, going up to 2030. We’ve never had that before. It is amazing”, she said, “but we cannot agree on how to measure against them”.
All panellists recognised the tension in the desire to objectively measure responsible business practices, but a realisation that this was an impossible task. Claire Spencer (Senior Policy Advisor, West Midlands Combined Authority) stressed how this challenge was further amplified in public sector policy making given the wider impact this had on business, communities and individuals. However, there was a demand for robust, evidence based impact analysis to drive and justify key strategic policy decisions. Petra Watkinson (Head of Responsible Business, Lloyds Banking Group) argued that the inability to capture all aspects of responsible business performance in metrics or financial values meant that businesses should look for alternative ways of measuring and telling the responsible business story. Laura Palmeiro argued that number based metrics were her preference, but that other approaches were valuable when this was not possible. Marc Stone (CFO, Energy Systems Catapult) argued that it was not always necessary or advisable to convert everything into financial values, but agreed that metrics and storytelling were useful ways to communicate to others with a stake in the performance of a business. All participants agreed that however things were measured this had to be linked back to the purpose of the business.
Painting the bigger picture
Professor Richard Black, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Social Sciences, challenged the audience with his opening statement: “The 2008 financial crisis was – or at least should have been a wake-up call for us all”. On the basis of this and subsequent societal dissatisfaction and distrust, responsible business should be high on the global agenda. He added that “there is nowhere better than this city, this region, and this university, to be addressing these issues”. Birmingham, is the “city, indeed and the university, of Joseph Chamberlain, who laid some of the foundations of how business could act with civic responsibility to the benefit of its employees, customers, students and the wider region”. Richard stressed that it is the University’s aspiration to “embed responsible business values at the heart of our activities in order to achieve our civic mission, and that goes beyond our Centre for Responsible Business to whole of the University”.
Examples of ‘walking the talk’ at University of Birmingham includes active engagement with the new combined authority, including pro bono work to support its planning activity. The College of Social Sciences in conjunction with Lloyds and West Midlands Mayor’s Mentors scheme is providing a cohort of colleagues to support young people taking the next step in their career.
The University is investing in sustainable energy and now produces 75% of our electricity consumption, developing hydrogen cell technology that already part-powers our own fleet of vehicles, and partnering with the Tyseley Energy Park to create a clean energy hub for the whole of Birmingham. On the back of a recent Mental Health Policy Commission report which we presented at the House of Commons in June, the college is investing in mental health first aid training and a concerted push to address mental health issues faced by both staff and students.
Our team throughout the day
The Centre’s professional services and research teams actively engaged with attendees, explaining our research and engagement activities in detail, and the benefits of our work to local, national and global business and community groups. Examples of our research were presented in a series of videos (click here to view), with posters and handouts available for delegates to take away. They are available to view online:
The conference closed with a summary of the day from our Centre Director who noted that “the word of the day is trust”, and urged attendees not to be pessimists or optimists but rather, possible-ists. Other important take-aways from the day were accountability, transparency, purpose, co-creation and collaboration. There were a number of important contributions from the floor, including ensuring others were able to participate in our project, particularly the marginalised and the younger generations.
Responsible business is an ongoing process shaped by changing business risks and opportunities. We need to develop new tools measure how each business is becoming responsible, how much further they can go, recognising incremental changes against all SDGs while taking into account other business priorities. A transparent approach should be adopted to reward any positive contribution, allowing businesses to learn what works and build capacity for change. In particular businesses to identify initiatives with the potential to build over time and across all business functions. Initiatives that create value to the business, protect the resources upon which business success depends and contribute positively to as many SDGs as possible and we should never underestimate the cumulative impact of planned incremental change. The Centre was challenged to come back next year with solutions to many of the problems raised today. We accept this challenge and through our work within academia and in partnership with innovative businesses around the world, we will create new responsible business tools that can contribute to a responsible and sustainable future.
Special thanks to all the speakers and panellists:
Professor Jan Bebbington Professor of Accounting, Birmingham Business School
Professor Richard Black Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of College of Social Sciences & Professor of International Development, University of Birmingham
Fiona Cannon, OBE, Group Director, Responsible Business and Inclusion, Lloyds Banking Group
Professor Catherine Cassell Dean and Professor of Organisational Psychology, Birmingham Business School
Laura Chapman Director, Equality Training
Professor Joanne Duberley Professor of Organisational Studies, Birmingham Business School
Jacqui Francis Commissioner on the West Midlands Combined Authority Leadership Commission & AdinaMay Consultancy
Dr Delphine Gibassier Senior Research Fellow, Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business
Professor Andrew Mullineux Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business & Professor of Financial Economics, Birmingham Business School
John O’Brien, MBE Managing Partner, ONE HUNDRED Agency
Professor Karen Rowlingson , Deputy Head of College of Social Science, Deputy Director of the Centre on Household Assets and Savings Management (CHASM) & Professor of Social Policy, University of Birmingham
Dr Sarindar Singh Sahota Trustee Acorns Children’s Hospice and Birmingham Business School Advisory Board
Professor Mark N K Saunders Professor of Business Research Methods, Birmingham Business School
Claire Spencer Senior Policy Advisor, West Midlands Combined Authority
Maria-Jose Subeila Head of Benchmarks, Insights and Innovation at Business in the Community
Professor Ian Thomson Director, Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business & Professor of Accounting and Sustainability, Birmingham Business School
Petra Watkinson Head of Responsible Business, Lloyds Banking Group
Special thanks also to Ross Gardiner, Group Public Affairs at Lloyds Banking Group.