by Michael Connor

One of my ongoing professional amusements involves what I call “The Name Game” – trying to reach agreement with colleagues on what to call the field in which we work.

Michael Porter

Michael Porter

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is the longest-standing and still most commonly used term, certainly on a global basis.  For lots of reasons, I prefer a variant of that: Corporate Responsibility.  Still other colleagues, especially in the U.S., embrace Corporate Citizenship.  Sustainability has gained in popularity in recent years.  And then there’s ESG – representing Environmental, Social and Governance issues.

New terms, and variations of existing terms, emerge with regularity.  Individuals and organizations embrace a particular definition because that definition suits their unique culture and goals.

Most terms, however, have one thing in common.  They hold that business and societal interests are not mutually exclusive; in broad terms, what’s good for society is good for business.  Therefore, business has a vested interest in addressing society’s challenges.

You might call it “shared value” – in fact, that’s exactly the term coined and suggested by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, co-founder with Porter of the FSG social impact consulting firm.

In the cover story of the current issue of the Harvard Business Review – The Big Idea: Creating Shared Value – Porter and Kramer urge business leaders to recognize that shared value is not “about ‘sharing’ the value already created by firms—a redistribution approach. Instead, it is about expanding the total pool of economic and social value.”

Companies must take the lead in bringing business and society back together. The recognition is there among sophisticated business and thought leaders, and promising elements of a new model are emerging. Yet we still lack an overall framework for guiding these efforts, and most companies remain stuck in a “social responsibility” mind-set in which societal issues are at the periphery, not the core.

The solution lies in the principle of shared value, which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. It is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center. We believe that it can give rise to the next major transformation of business thinking.

Porter and Kramer first addressed the theme of “shared value” in a December 2006 article in the Harvard Business Review, Strategy & Society: The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility.

In their current article, Porter and Kramaer say there are three distinct ways to create shared value: “by reconceiving products and markets, redefining productivity in the value chain, and building supportive industry clusters at the company’s locations.”

“The concept of shared value resets the boundaries of capitalism,” they write. “By better connecting companies’ success with societal improvement, it opens up many ways to serve new needs, gain efficiency, create differentiation, and expand markets.”

Companies employing shared value strategies, according to the authors, include Unilever, Nestlé, Walmart, GE and Johnson & Johnson.

Shared value is a provocative take on what’s happening – and, more importantly, what could happen – when the interests of business and society are aligned.  Porter and Kramer’s article probably won’t resolve the perennial corporate responsibility “Name Game” question, but it is a challenging and valuable analysis, well worth the read.

Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

This article was first published on January 12, 2011.

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