The history of corporate responsibility - BAM workshop

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By Dr Juliet Kele, Research Fellow in HRM

In January, the British Academy of Management (BAM) jointly hosted a workshop which united both business and management history scholars by asking a universal question: how could (management) history inform discourse on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), responsible business and business ethics?

The Business History Special Interest Group (SIG) and the Organisational History Research Cluster at York Management School, University of York, added their expertise to the organisation of this workshop, which was well attended by academics from all disciplines.

Debate was lively throughout the day. The workshop included nine very thought provoking presentations, covering themes ranging from historical socially-orientated business models, to the impact of the Quaker movement, to exploring whether there was an ethical side to Taylorism. Attendees explored the many distinct ways in which responsible business, over time, continues to interact with and contribute to organisational strategy and practice.

Attendees gained valuable understanding of the historical role of leadership in advancing responsible business approaches. They also considered how changes in corporate governance could affect sustainable and responsible human resource management and managerial decision making, for the better or worse.

One very interesting topic to emerge from the workshop was the differing definitions of CSR and responsible business and how these discourses have evolved over time. The original focus centred around philanthropy and developed into a preoccupation with profit, stakeholder welfare and, in more modern times, becoming more of an organisational strategic process. The attendees learned of the link between socially responsible movements of the past and the work of Mary Parker Follett in guiding the work of contemporary responsible business initiatives, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This workshop really highlighted the benefit of studying responsible business and CSR through different inter-disciplinary perspectives. Doing so leads to a more nuanced awareness of how such important organisational issues can be addressed from multi-faceted standpoints and ideologies.

Attending this workshop increased awareness and allowed consideration of using management history as a lens through which to examine the origins and future possible directions of CSR. The event fostered a renewed appreciation for the importance of historical context. While it is great to look forward to the future, we can certainly learn from the past.