Posts Taged strategy

What’s your story: Why every sustainability program needs a narrative

While it is great that many enterprises have decided to take on a myriad of initiatives and actions within their sustainability or CSR programs, have they truly clarified what the outcomes are?  And if not, is that a problem?

Well, without a clear and compelling narrative describing our sustainability strategy, how can we engage stakeholders with respect to what we are trying to achieve when quite possibly we don’t know what the end goal is, ourselves? And in a world where it is difficult to grab the attention and commitment of stakeholders, both internally and externally, you need to do more than flick them a dull plan.

AS I noted recently in my whitepaper on why sustainability programs often fail, you need a narrative, one that can be fleshed out by leaders to create a story.  I’ve been won over by the need to engage people with more than facts; a story – specific to an enterprise and its opportunities, challenges and the environment in which it finds itself – one that connects with people’s emotive sides.

What’s in a narrative? For me, a well-crafted narrative sets boundaries regarding:

  • The scope of the program (the WHAT)
  • The key activities (the HOW); and
  • Possibly, the key stakeholders to engage or work with (the WHO).

But most importantly, where I think narratives for sustainability programs could be especially potent is when they encapsulate just what is the fundamental objective that you are trying to achieve.  The WHY.

Just as many companies are successful by connecting their strategic direction with a compelling purpose, so too sustainability programs should fulfil their huge potential to engage stakeholders and provide clarity with the use of a great narrative that explains the WHY.  Just why are we doing this?

Have you ever thought about your own, personal, WHY, or your narrative?  That get’s people thinking (that can get people thinking about changing jobs or careers).

Anyone who has visited my website will have seen that Phoenix “exists to support transformational change that benefits enterprises, communities and the environment”.  That is my WHY; that is what keeps me going – to support transformational change in the reputation and performance of enterprises as a consequence of facilitating them to strategically advance transformational contributions to social and environmental issues within communities.  And I work towards this WHY through the services I offer.

What could they look like?

Here is a very different example to get you thinking.  It’s from a community proactively dealing with interconnected, wicked problems such as high unemployment, high truancy, poor reputation and crime:

By connecting our community, we will reduce the impacts of drugs and alcohol, mental health issues, domestic violence and other violent crimes on our community.  Sustaining a long-term mindset, we will facilitate this by involving and educating disadvantaged families, transforming school attendance, and enabling and partnering with those who wish to make a difference in embedding positive behaviours throughout our community.

Just think about it, it’s quite confronting; it humbles many of us when we think our enterprise has real challenges with figuring out how to tackle issues!  Well, this narrative for a truly wicked problem still contains the WHO, WHAT, HOW and WHY.  Does your enterprise have in place such a statement for its sustainability strategy so that you know what it strives to do?

For many, that question might be met with an awkward pause however, awkward or not, it needs to be raised.

The value of a narrative

Creating a narrative obviously helps with engaging stakeholders because it summarises the directions of a strategy / plan / report into just a few compelling lines.  While people may not remember a narrative word-for-word, generally they can remember the “gist” of the direction.  How many plans has your enterprise had where you can remember what they are trying to achieve?

But a narrative helps with so much more.

Crafting a narrative can engage stakeholders because the best narratives take a participatory approach to their development.  It isn’t just one team that develops the ideas on their own; influential stakeholders are also involved, which in turn, raises the potential to engage them when it comes to delivery of the narrative.

Importantly, it forces enterprises to think strategically.  I believe that is a huge problem with many sustainability programs – that they have been created with little rhyme or reason to them.  Instead, the development of a narrative helps enterprises focus on what is important, relevant and where it can get the biggest bang for its buck – internally and externally i.e. on issues of materiality.

Similarly, thinking about the why – a program’s  fundamental objective – really forces enterprises to think about why do they have a sustainability program in the first place.  Just what is trying to be achieved?  What are the outcomes sought?  DO we have this program to help improve performance?  Or to innovate new business models?

And finally, thinking strategically forces enterprises to consider tradeoffs.  That is, by crafting a narrative, enterprises soon come to a point where they realise that they will never have enough resources – time, people or money – to do all that they want to do.  They can never be enough to all causes.  Accordingly, they need to think about where they can advance a genuine contribution efficiently and effectively and therefore, if some of the initiatives or actions are really necessary.

But wait! There’s more!

For a recent sustainable development project, I built on the use of a narrative to engage and educate stakeholders on what the strategic direction would be (in this instance, the narrative described above) by calling on a top graphic designer, Tone Bullen from Smorgasbord (, to draw the narrative:


I am finding that people really connect with these drawings because the narrative becomes more than words or facts; it becomes visual – and they end up appealing to people emotionally about “what could be”.

And isn’t that what we want?


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The Failure to Implement Your CSR Strategy

I have been so-o-o lucky in my time to be able to assist some local communities plan around some really important issues such as planning for their economic, social and environmental sustainability in to the future.  Yet, outside of my scope of works, has been the need for these communities to deliver these plans.  And, even though I keep trying to alert clients to the challenges of delivery – it is still all too common for delivery to fail.  The documents just end up on the shelf somewhere.

And this isn’t just the domain of communities.  It is also apparent when I ask the executive of companies to share with me what they believe have been the big areas of CSR progress over the past few years.  All I often get is an awkward silence because nothing ever happens in between conferences.  And this is just as relevant for a company’s overarching strategy as it is for CSR strategy (more on that another time).

So here are a few tips to consider – if you haven’t already – with respect to ensuring that your CSR strategy or plans have a greater chance of successful delivery.

Organisations need to place as much focus on implementation as they put on the development of CSR strategy or plans

Is the Executive focussing onimplementation? Why not include monitoring of a strategy or plan’s delivery as an Executive Team meeting agenda item at least on a quarterly basis.  Too often, senior managers appear to have meeting agendas that have been created historically with no consideration given as to how they (the agendas) influence what is considered to be important.  Why not retain a focus on your strategy simply by having an agenda item or even a meeting each quarter specifically to debate progress on your strategy?

Are they committed?  Do the Executive even care about CSR?

Is middle management focussing on implementation? I reckon that middle managers have the toughest gig; they are the ones who are expected to roll out new initiatives while still being expected to deliver business as usual.  How are you making life easier for them?

Are your executive or group managers coaching middle management? Or is that the role of your CSR Manager? Are you providing middle managers with bite sized chunks of information that they can readily absorb on just what you want them to do?

Oh, and have you even involved them in identifying how to roll out the strategy?

How are staff engaged and supported? Have you really communicated your CSR strategy to staff and why the strategy is necessary? Put simply, sell, sell, sell! Sell your staff a vision and a purpose.  And sell to staff how their work contribute to this.

Have staff been given the opportunity, through their managers, to set the targets to deliver the strategy?  Have staff been given the chance to identify the initiatives or projects that may be necessary to achieve the targets? Instead of them receiving a command from on top of the mountain, give them a chance to have their say!

And just to ensure that, once staff are engaged they will follow through, are there CSR responsibilities included in performance agreements of staff?

Just how many initiatives is your company actually running? Consider if your organisation is trying to implement too much too soon.  While I know that “the only constant is change”, there must be a limit to the number of strategic – or change – initiatives you can subject staff to.

I was involved some years ago with a company trying to deliver 14 staff and environmental initiatives at the same time; there was no way that middle managers were going to be able to effectively deliver on those.

Is your company measuring – and monitoring – what matters? Does your organisation even have genuine KPIs for CSR?  Or do you just monitor milestones? For that matter, all too often companies report on indicators for external initiatives, but do these really contribute to enhancing your company’s business performance?

And how often do you monitor and evaluate progress on these? Do you just monitor them when it comes time to report on them again?

So, think about why you measure and monitor your KPIs.  Do they (the KPIs) really matter?


Sure there are plenty more things that could be done to enhance success. What are you doing?

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10 Reasons Why Strategic CSR Is a Must Have: No. 10 Contribution

The last nine articles have focussed on the diverse business benefits available from being strategic about CSR. Yet, there is one more that can’t go unmentioned – genuinely contributing to a social or environmental cause.

I met someone who worked in CSR / communications within one of Australia’s banks.  She told me that this particular bank – and it’s staff – were sponsoring 150 different charities / causes. 150!  Now, that may sound really nice but, in practice, is there any chance that the bank will make much of a difference (to those causes), if at all?

No. 10  Strategic CSR can result in companies truly contributing to a cause

Companies often take too much on Like the above example, companies often have CSR programs that try to tackle far too many initiatives.  From tree planting to resource efficiency to world hunger to cancer, these are all incredibly important issues but you can’t do them all and expect to make a difference.
Strategic CSR ensures only a few causes are tackled The nature of strategic CSR is that companies realise that there must be tradeoffs; rather than tackle all and sundry, do a few (causes) and do them well.
And the efforts can be even better if you use your expertise If you are a trucking company, you don’t expand your services by getting in to hairdressing.  So why do so many companies try to tackle causes that have no relevance to what they do?

Find a cause where you can use your expertise to help out. Most charities are staffed by people trying to run a couple of functions at any one time.  They would be thrilled to get advice or assistance on marketing, financial management etc and you can quickly see the benefits of helping out.


So how many charities is your company sponsoring?

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10 Reasons Why Strategic CSR Is a Must Have: No. 8 Systems

I did some work many years ago with a company whose quality system completely hindered their efforts.  While they talked about “creating a customer-focussed culture”, the amount of paperwork and sign offs required was surreal.  For example, each and every mobile phone required by a new staff member, sign off was required by a GM and then the CEO!

(Now, is that really an effective use of the CEO’s time? And what implications does a culture like that create for all stakeholders?)

No. 8  Strategic CSR can result in companies improving their systems

Systems are vital to delivering an organisation’s goals Whether it be management systems, procedures, values, meeting agendas or position descriptions etc, they may be a dry subject, but all play a part in organisations setting expectations as to what people should or should not be working on or even how they should behave.  They are all a means by which effort can be channelled effort towards delivering organisational strategy – and subsequently, corporate goals.
But sometimes they seem to take on a life of their own They can sometimes be a scourge.  For some reason – or perhaps due to the cumulative impact of hundreds of decisions – we can lose sight of what we are trying to do; we seem to lose sight of doing the right things and tend to focus on doing things right. There is a difference!
Strategic CSR can help improve systems It’s a no brainer; focussing on meeting the needs of key stakeholders can translate to subsequent system improvements.  To paraphrase a six sigma term, a commitment to considering the “voice of the customer and other key stakeholders” in system development and maintenance is vital to determining if an organisation’s systems are helping or hindering its meeting of their needs.

Through working with relevant stakeholders on solving common problems, organisations receive feedback on what they do and how they are doing things.  Much of this feedback can relate to refocussing organisations on doing the right things; and then we can rethink just what our systems are delivering for our customers and those affected by our operations.  If our systems are not creating value, what needs to be done?

Strategic CSR can result in innovative improvements The resulting outcome can only be good for stakeholders – and organisations.  This “collision of ideas” that comes out of partnering with stakeholders has strong potential to result in innovative improvements to systems.  In fact, many organisations are now providing incentives to staff to identify means to stript their systems back to what they are meant to be doing.

While I have never quantified it, wouldn’t I be right that the potential to cut systems back to the truly important things must have some significant benefits to organisations? Coming back to my initial story, there would have to be some huge savings simply with respect to not burdening staff and executive alike with having to the tiniest of tasks signed off so many times.


So what are your systems doing for you? How do they help you achieve your corporate goals?

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10 Reasons Why Strategic CSR Is a Must Have: No. 7 Consultation Costs

Some years ago, I was involved with the community consultation associated with the construction of a large infrastructure project through a number of Sydney suburbs.  Despite all of the advice provided by myself and colleagues, the client decided that they wanted to put minimal effort in to one-way consultation with government and non-government stakeholders (ie the community) at the beginning of the project.  This was even though construction would create some controversial impacts for the communities and the environment.

The outcome?  More resources were required for consultation as the community and some government agencies grew agitated, ending up in a drawn out mediation process being required.  If the client had been proactive upfront, they probably would have saved millions needed for reactive consultation and project delays.

No. 7  Strategic CSR can result in companies reducing the costs associated with stakeholder consultation

Companies that commit to stakeholder engagement reap the benefits As the above story highlights, companies that are proactive from the beginning of a project are often viewed by stakeholders as trustworthy.  So often, stakeholders just want to make sure that they have been listened to and their views have been considered.  Where this is the case, they view companies as being less of a risk to their community.

Consequently, there is the stronger potential for costs associated not only with stakeholder engagement, but also with construction or operation costs to be significantly reduced.  That comes from less meetings with stakeholders in the long-run, less mediation, fewer dealings with the media and fewer delays to projects.

And this is possible by identifying stakeholders well in advance of projects beginning and engaging with them as required – with two-way communication.  That is, there is no longer value in just consulting with those stakeholders you have always consulted with and you may even have to consult with those you may not be comfortable interacting with because they look angry.

This is because times have changed Companies can no longer comply solely with simple legislative conditions.  Conditions are becoming more onerous with respect to engaging with the stakeholders, resulting in the need for more than just having a one-off community information day – or mailing out an information leaflet.
So too have communities That legislative conditions have become more onerous is probably a reflection of government regulators becoming more attuned to changes in community expectations.  For example, Edelman’s recently released Trust Barometer identified only a 54 % level of trust by the community in Australian companies. Much of what business does is viewed with instant cynicism, particularly when a company enters a town or Shire and proposes to construct or operate something new.  Communities want proof that the well being of their community and the surrounding environment is being respected.
Companies with a positive image can use that “capital” for future projects Another way of looking at it is that, if a company with a bad reputation expects to set up business in a new location and not have to do some real hard yards and spend a fortune, they are completely deluded.

If you come to a new location with a great reputation, you have less need to win a community over (but you still need to show respect and commitment).


How does your company engage with its stakeholders on construction or operation projects? Has it been using the same method for the last 20 years?

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10 Reasons Why Strategic CSR Is a Must Have: No. 6 Workforce Development

The benefits from being more strategic about CSR are numerous.  Rather than targeting every known cause under the sun – as many companies do, particularly with their sponsorship or community investment programs – companies should accept that there need to be some tradeoffs.  It simply does not make sense to spread efforts so thin across the causes selected.  Who gains from this?

No. 6  Strategic CSR can result in companies developing their workforce’s capabilities

Productivity is important A number of opinion pieces lately have highlighted the need for Australia to find the means to improve productivity.

This is necessary if the country is to remain competitive.  A recent World Economic Forum report1 identified that, for Australia to become more competitive, it would need to make improvements in business sophistication and innovation.

Strategic CSR can get more out of staff by improving engagement Previously, I had noted that significant improvements can be made to the productivity of individual companies through the genuine engagement of staff. By having a common and understood organisational purpose – and one that strategic CSR initiatives are also aligned with –subsequent improvements to staff motivation can be made.  Don’t we all want to feel like we are contributing to something important?
More importantly, productivity can be enhanced through development of staff Many leaders complain about not getting enough out of their staff.  Well, strategic CSR can contribute deeply to the development of staff.  As staff commit to working with stakeholders on common problems, the old ways of thinking staff can often adhere to are challenged.  Rather than seeing problems solely from the perspectives taught to become engineers or scientists etc, staff learn new problem solving skills.

A number of leading construction companies now are well versed in working with environmental groups to reduce the impacts of infrastructure construction on nearby wildlife.  This has lead to solving problems innovatively, reducing the time spent overcoming community concerns or government approvals and resulting in innovative services and sophistication that gain greater value from staff.

And also development of leaders Similarly, the “collision” of ideas and perspectives described above also can contribute todeveloping better leaders.

Yukl2 highlighted making decisions, influencing people, building relationships and giving – seeking information as the key behavioural areas which enable managers to perform their roles effectively.  For those that are currently technical leaders, these people skills can be developed from commitment to stakeholder interactions and more holistic thinking.

I remember leaving a public sector organisation years ago because I was so fed up with the impacts of leaders getting promotions based not on leadership capability but because they had the best technical expertise.  They could not describe a vision, they could not inspire nor could they even control project delivery. They simply wanted to run their own projects, not worry about people.

Meanwhile, the Karpin Taskforce3 highlighted the urgency for reform and improvement of management.  As the business environment is changing rapidly, the softer skills will be necessary to extract greater productivity from teams and hence companies.  And if companies are to enhance sophistication and innovation, strategic CSR can play a vital role.


1  World Economic Forum, 2010, Global competitiveness report 2010 – 2011.

2  Yukl, G., 1998, Leadership in organizations, Prentice Hall, NJ.

3  Karpin Taskforce, 1995, Enterprising nation: renewing Australia’s managers to meet the challenges of the Asia-Pacific century, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

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10 Reasons Why Strategic CSR Is a Must Have: No. 5 Retention & Attraction

The benefits from being more strategic about CSR are numerous.  Rather than targeting every known cause under the sun – as many companies do, particularly with their sponsorship or community investment programs – companies should accept that there need to be some tradeoffs.  It simply does not make sense to spread efforts so thin across the causes selected.  Who gains from this?

So, each week, I will describe a benefit companies can gain from being a bit more strategic about CSR than most currently are. Why?  Well, for those companies that describe their people as their “greatest asset”, gulp, you certainly need to think about this!

No. 5  Strategic CSR can result in companies enhancing staff retention, attraction and productivity

It is currently difficult to attract and retain staff The era of skills shortages is challenging enough as Australia grapples with an ageing population and a substantial number of workers continuing to leave the workforce over the next ten years.  You only have to look at the extent to which mining companies fly workers in and out to see what a challenge this is.
Strategic CSR can combat this problem through improving a company’s image Put simply, people don’t wish to join a company with a poor image, nor do they often wish to remain with such a company.  One company I know of put on a significant number of junior staff in the past few years. Once staff realised that the company had a poor image for managing external – and internal – stakeholders (ie them), many left, leaving a significant gap in the company’s workforce. A proactive strategy that considers the role of staff and the impacts of their operations on the wider community would negate this from occurring.
And also can play a significant role in improving productivity Strategic CSR results in engaged staff that are intrinsically motivated to give their best for a company.  If staff see that the company is committed to maintaining good relationships, staff will want to work hard.The kind of reputation a company creates for CSR will play a significant role in shaping employees’ engagement and subsequently, productivity.  A study by Towers Perrin1observed that companies with high employee engagement had a 19% increase in operating income and almost a 28% growth in earnings per share.  Conversely, companies with low levels of engagement saw operating income drop more than 32% and earnings per share decline over 11%.

That company described above, instead, has a complicated problem.  As award conditions in the company are pretty good, many disengaged staff are staying on. The funny thing is that the company raves about its low turnover rate- but many of those remaining are veryunproductive, just waiting each day to go home.


1 Towers Perrin, 2008, Closing the Engagement Gap: A Road Map For Driving Superior Business Performance.

What is your turnover rate? Days to fill a position? Is your company’s image affecting these?

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10 Reasons Why Strategic CSR Is a Must Have: No. 4 Competition

The benefits from being more strategic about CSR are numerous.  Rather than targeting every known cause under the sun – as many companies do, particularly with their sponsorship or community investment programs – companies should accept that there need to be some tradeoffs.  It simply does not make sense to spread efforts so thin across the causes selected.  Who gains from this?

So, each week, I will describe a benefit companies can gain from being more strategic about CSR than most currently are. Why? Because so many companies still don’t get that CSR is good for business.

No. 4  Strategic CSR can result in companies enhancing their competitive advantage

A company can contribute something special when it uses its unique capabilities and resources to tackle causes Simply throwing money at causes may provide an easy short-term solution but it seldom provides a longer-term, sustained benefit.  I know of an energy company that puts great stock on intermittent morning teas held for various causes. Yes, it is a nice gesture but is it really making a difference to anybody?

Those things that make your organisation different to your competitors – and assist with making you stand out from the pack – can assist in genuinely contributing to relevant social and/or environmental causes.

Companies should not only tackle causes of relevance to their operations, but also partner with relevant non-profit or public sector stakeholders rather than sponsoring multiple charity events.  By tackling these with your expertise, technology or other unique resources, there is a far better chance of creating profound change than is the case with non-committal sponsorship.

Partnering with relevant external stakeholders can translate into real Innovation By learning and improving from external partnerships, companies can shift from going through simple feel good exercises to translating this into new products or services, thereby staying a step ahead of the game.

Simply put, by working with relevant stakeholders on common problems, companies see issues from a different perspective than they would otherwise; and they learn and improve.  That is, by tackling social or environmental causes with a company’s unique capabilities and resources, the capabilities and resources can be improved.  Greater knowledge is obtained, strengthening expertise; technology is improved, increasing productivity.

I know of a construction company that intends to grow through developing new service offerings that result from what it learns from its CSR program.  To think it was only recently that some constructions firms couldn’t care less about the community or the environment.

Trust is built in your brand Brands viewed by the community as having integrity also enhance competitive advantage.

Compare this with many brands that use CSR as a marketing tool; it won’t work and it will detract from competitiveness.  I have spoken previously about a controversial mining company that sponsors the local footy team, thinking that is a good business decision.  The community is far more savvy about that form of marketing than believed and view it as nothing more than a means to buy favours.

It is then difficult for competitors to imitate your offerings Improving your unique capabilities and resources also enhances your competitive advantage.

What is unique about a company is often developed over years, resulting from a blend of say, cultural, technological and expertise influences.  By targeting the use of these capabilities and resources for complex external – but relevant – issues, their uniqueness is reinforced and strengthened, making it nigh on impossible for competitors to try and imitate.

So, what makes your company competitive? And how are you maintaining that?

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10 Reasons Why Strategic CSR Is a Must Have: No. 3 Customer Relationships

The benefits from being more strategic about CSR are numerous.  Rather than targeting every known cause under the sun – as many companies do, particularly with their sponsorship or community investment programs – companies should accept that there need to be some tradeoffs.  It simply does not make sense to spread efforts so thin across the causes selected.  Who gains from this?

So, each week, I will describe a benefit companies can gain from being a bit more strategic about CSR than most currently are.

No. 3  Strategic CSR can result in companies deepening their relationships with customers

Companies that commit to CSR can develop new innovative offerings By developing solutions with external stakeholders that company staff may never had considered previously, there is a real opportunity to translate these solutions directly or indirectly into new – or improved – products or services.
These enhance the potential to meet customers’ needs Often these new innovations can create a new market and enhance the appeal to customers whose needs have never been appropriately met – whether that be developing cars cheap enough for people who have always transported their entire family around on scooters through to developing small fridges for those who have never been able to store food for more than a day or two.

Consequently, the benefits can be significant, creating shared value for both the supplier and the customer; namely, providing enhanced revenue for the supplier and delivering profound social and/or environmental benefits to the customers and the wider community.

And the strong, positive image of the supplier also appeals to customers It is logical for customers to wish to be associated with companies that are perceived to have a good, social conscience.

Alternatively, how many customers want to purchase products or services from a supplier with a badly tarnished image?  Other businesses certainly don’t want that association. Within two months of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurring, almost 50 % had been wiped off the value of BP’s shares.  And within just two weeks after the hacking scandal emerged, News Corps shares sank 15 %.  Would you expect companies in that situation to effectively retain customers at least in the short- to medium-term?


What has been the experience in your company or companies you know that made the press for all the wrong reasons?

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10 Reasons Why Strategic CSR Is a Must Have: No. 2 Innovation

The benefits from being more strategic about CSR are numerous.  Rather than targeting every known cause under the sun – as many companies do, particularly with their sponsorship or community investment programs – companies should accept that there need to be some tradeoffs.  It simply does not make sense to spread efforts so thin across the causes selected.  Who gains from this?

So, each week, I will describe a benefit companies can gain from being a bit more strategic about CSR than most currently are.

No. 2  Strategic CSR can result in companies innovating new products and services

Companies that commit to CSR can form valuable partnerships Those companies that commit to targeting a few causes that are relevant to their business are being seen by key community stakeholders as sincere, thereby building trust.  This is particularly the case where companies commit to working with the community in solving construction or operational impacts on the community and then moving beyond this to generate something of real benefit to the community.
And those partnerships brainstorm common problems By working with stakeholders on common issues, companies get to view problems from the different perspective of the community.  This cross-fertilisation of ideas opens up company staff to realise solutions that they would never have considered if they had worked simply within their own teams.
That can result in the development of new offerings By developing solutions that company staff may never had considered previously, there is a real opportunity to translate these solutions directly or indirectly into new – or improved – products or services.

For example, I have become interested in many companies in the construction industry who have moved beyond using CSR as a feel good organisational add-on to new services they can offer to clients creating benefits for all concerned.  Anyway, something to consider!

As always, I really value your ideas. So keep them coming.

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