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CSR: Separating the Wheat From the Chaff


So, I had some interesting thoughts about corporate social responsibility on my jog near our hotel tonight, but as one of the key things I’m working on relates to one of the companies we’ll be visiting on the trip, I guess this is the point I have to start to clam up on the topic, even though I was just starting to get my brain in gear.

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To clarify my earlier comments on CSR, though, I do think there is value to the study of it, I just think the meat of what is new, interesting and important lives within a narrow spectrum of the topic, which I would limit to companies being 1) transparent, 2) aware of all stakeholders, even competitors, and treating them with diligence and respect, and 3) using organizational competencies or challenges as a means towards social good.

I think the last point is the most important, although it’s difficult to be effective at it without the second point. For many industries, transparency strikes me as the least important of the three, and in many cases can start to blend in with “just good business” items I consider to be kind of a distraction from the central topic.

Those distractions are a clear part of what I consider to be a problem with discussions around CSR right now. There is something new here, but it is getting lost in the marketing, greenwashing and general BS that can surround companies that are new to the topic and are going “me too!” You’re good to your employees? You try to be efficient with your resources? Whatever, that’s expected. Show me what you’re doing beyond that.

One of the initiatives of the foundation attached to my employer (DISCLAIMER: I am speaking on my own behalf, not on that of my company) that I think is a good example of “doing something beyond” is the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Emergency Information Service (EIS), which springs into action when a natural disaster or other major event challenges a community and disrupts traditional means disseminating critical information. (The Haiti earthquake provided one example.) The goal of the service is to “provide fast, practical and verified information” to affected populations, including “everything from public health advice to trustworthy information on relief efforts – and always in local languages.” It’s a good example of a company—the Foundation has access to Thomson Reuters resources—using its unique competencies—in this case information gathering and dissemination—and using it to do good even though there is arguably no direct benefit to the organization. It’s this kind of corporate behavior that I find interesting, and think in many ways it’s more important than the old-school corporate charity that we’re familiar with. (It also, incidentally, makes me proud to be a Thomson Reuters employee.)

Unfortunately, it’s these very kinds of efforts that often get drowned out when companies report on everything they’re doing for CSR, much of which they really should be, you know, doing anyway.

Posted in Education at 12:22 am



Officially, we’re here in Indiana this weekend for the baptism of Lisa’s cousin’s youngest son, for which Lisa will be the godmother, but after today I think the real reason is so Mathias can run around crazy with his extended family.

Mathias and James

It was a long drive down yesterday—Minneapolis to Northern Indiana probably feels like an eternity for a four-year-old, but all things considered Mathias handled it well—but we got to break it up with a too-infrequent stop in Madison to visit Robin, Andy, and their talented escape artist of a toddler, Calvin. Tomorrow we get up early for the baptism, and on Memorial Day we head back to Minneapolis, this time stopping in Madison for lunch/dinner (linner?) with Lisa’s folks. In all, it’s going to be a quick weekend, but it’s still been a nice diversion from everything else going on.

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Despite the nice opportunity to visit with family and friends, my brain is focused on Scandinavia. In addition to getting ready for the trip, I have a ridiculous amount of work to get done at work before I head out on Friday. Two weeks is a practical eternity at my job, and I’m going to be gone when a number of Big DecisionsTM are going to have to go down, but I guess this wouldn’t be a Carlson MBA class if it weren’t disruptive to family and work life.

Early morning tomorrow, I should hit it. More later.

Posted in Journal,Travelog at 11:49 pm

Nothing New Under the Sun


I’ve been skipping through books on CSR over the past week, trying to get myself psyched up for a trip that’s less than a week and a half away, and so far everything seems to be backfiring. One of the books I’m working on, Saving The World At Work, caused a bit of a revelation this evening, and not in a good way. The first chapter of the book includes examples on Ikea flat packing its furniture and maximizing shipping space. That of course was given as an example of corporate responsibility–not being sloppy on shipping allows Ikea to minimize its environmental footprint. Critics could argue that the real benefit to Ikea comes from the fact the aggressive shipping methods allow it to save money, but I’m not really bothered by that. Save money, save resources, win win, but something about the example, and others like it, have bothered me.

It was on my walk tonight that I got it. A frequent argument for companies developing CSR initiatives is that it’s just good business, and while that may be true, one could just as easily argue that running one’s business in an efficient manner is just good business. While the argument on CSR is considered revolutionary and worthy of discussion and study, the efficiency argument is so obvious that few would bother to speak it. The problem is, aside from limited kinds of stakeholder outreach, and certain types of remediation, there is little difference between the two.

In a nutshell, CSR may just be a different name for something that has existed for as long as businesses have competed with each other. We may be developing new methods in this day and age, but from a philosophical standpoint, it’s starting to look like CSR is nothing new.

Posted in Education at 11:58 pm

Scandinavia on Deck


Sometime yesterday evening it dawned on me that I’m just over two weeks away from heading to Scandinavia for my class on corporate social responsibility, a trip for which I’m grossly unprepared. In many ways my brain is still in China, as I reach the midpoint in Richard McGregor’s immensely interesting The Party, and as I still try to cut through the 5000+ photos I took there in January. It’s kind of like when you trip on something, and have that long moment to process the fact that you’re falling, and then that split second when it becomes clear that the floor is going to happen.

I entered that split second last night. I used up my existing credits on Audible to grab any CSR listening I could—off topic, but is there anything as ridiculously broken as Audible’s search function?—and grabbed a few books for my Kindle as well. It’s going to take quite an effort to get my brain to shift, though. Even with my pre-courses at Carlson, I somehow managed, completely unintentionally, to keep my mental focus on cleanup from the past months and years rather than preparing for what’s on deck. In a way I suppose this is somewhat natural after four years of parenthood, work and school: As my classes have eased up and my bandwidth has increased, the natural inclination has been to catch up on that which had been set aside.

But, I’m not done with school yet, and with the huge time and financial commitment this final course represents, I owe it to myself to get as much out of it as possible. So, I’m going to have to put down The Party mid-read—something I hate, hate, hate doing, as I’m fantastic at not picking up books back up after an extended pause—get the photos done tomorrow or Friday (my American classmates have seen them, my Chinese classmates have not) and get going on CSR.

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And with that, I should probably apologize for what may happen to this blog over the coming weeks. It’s been fairly dormant since I started school—there have barely been ten posts since my dad died—but now its reanimation may make it look like a hack CSR blog. (Emphasis should be on the word “hack.”) Some people talk aloud to work through their ideas. Me, I tend to write, and as I work through the vagaries, motives and conflicts surrounding the topic of CSR, I’ll probably be writing about them here.

Posted in Education,Journal at 11:45 pm

Weekend Update


It’s hard to remember the last time Lisa or I had to give a statement to law enforcement.  This weekend both of us did, but for completely different events.

But I should back up a bit. We had a fun weekend.

On Saturday we headed to Northeast Minneapolis to go to Brickmania, where the Greater Midwest Lego Train Club was having its monthly open house.  The GMLTC basically appears to be a bunch of grown men who never got over their love of playing with Legos, and the results are kind of spectacular.  Mathias had a lot of fun, especially with the huge ramp for Lego cars.

Mathias and the Lego subway

After that we headed up Central looking for lunch, and ended up at Flameburger.  Flameburger makes an excellent hamburger, at least by Twin Cities standards, and Lisa had a pretty good grilled cheese as well.  We got Mathias chicken strips, which tasted more like fish than they did chicken, but that was probably OK as Mathias basically ended up eating french fries for a half hour anyway.

It was on our drive home–we headed up to 694 to encourage Mathias to take a nap–that the weekend started to get wonky.  The weather was rainy and windy, so traffic was moving pretty slow, and I quickly settled in in the middle lane at around 55.  The left lane was going about the same speed, much to the annoyance of the old Grand Prix that suddenly appeared to my left.  Just as my brain started to register that this dude could really be a problem, he opened just enough space between me and the car in front of him that he could dart over in front of us–and start fishtailing all over the center lane.  Expecting an accident, I backed off, but he recovered.  He clearly wasn’t happy being stuck in the middle lane any more than he was the left, though, so he sped ahead of the two cars to my front left and did an extremely sharp lane change back to the left lane.  Once again he started to fishtail, but this time he would not recover.  He slammed into the center median and then pivoted back across all three lanes of traffic.  I momentarily took my eyes off of him as I braked–traffic was dense I was afraid of us getting hit from behind–but when I saw him again his car was headed right back at the center median, almost perpendicular to traffic.  He hit the center median close to straight-on.  There his car came to rest, sans his left-rear tire, which was laying on the right shoulder.

We ended up being the ones who called 911, which resulted in us getting a call from a state trooper about 20 minutes later.  He asked me to give a statement, which I did, after which he told me the driver of the Grand Prix had said that he’d been driving in the right lane when his tire blew out.  Uh huh.

As planned, Mathias zonked out on the drive home, so I stayed home while Lisa headed out to run some errands.  One of the items on her list was to stop at Walgreen’s to pick up some photos, where she encountered a moderately crazy looking guy at the one hour photo counter punching the Kodak photo kiosk.  Some of the staff tried to stop him, which resulted in him attacking one of the managers.  Suddenly there were cops everywhere, and in the end it turned out the guy was trying to print off photos of naked girls who couldn’t have been more than preschool age.  With that it was Lisa’s turn to give a statement.

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Today was generally pleasant, and thankfully did not include distractions like car accidents and child porn.  We headed down to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum with one of Lisa’s old college friends and her husband (their son, by weird coincidence, goes to the same preschool as Mathias), where we had a picnic and let our kids look for frogs, hit things with sticks and run themselves crazy on the bog walk.

Mathias looking for frogs

Aside from one rock-eating incident, Mathias and his friend Nicholas were pretty harmless, although towards the end there was a clear risk of them dismantling one of the flower gardens, so we had to get out there.

And now it’s Sunday evening, and we haven’t even done our weekly grocery shopping yet. I guess that’s one way to tell you had a full weekend.

Posted in Journal at 10:08 pm

So That Happened


I had my last in-classroom class at Carlson last night. I paused before exiting the room, feeling that I should mark the occasion somehow, but in the end there was not much to do other than just walk out. I guess that’s how these things often end. Getting an MBA has been one the more difficult initiatives I’ve taken in my life—I have the extra weight and debt to prove it—but it is now essentially over.

The only things between me from that incredibly expensive piece of paper (and becoming the target of well-deserved jokes) are a couple of reports and a two-week trip to Scandinavia in June. I’m thankful I’ll be ending the program with a class that includes me getting to visit a part of the world I’ve never been to, and getting access to companies I’d never have the chance to see up-close otherwise, but in a way it will make the end of my degree an even quieter experience. Instead of the sound of a door closing behind me, at some point in the near future a single tap of a mouse will mark the submission of my reports, and the end of a wonderful, challenging, and sometimes strange four years.

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I’m not sure if this was appropriate or not, but after the class I went out for a few beers with some classmates, came home in time to help put Mathias to bed, and fell asleep after reading him some books. I woke up in his room around 3:00 am, tip-toed over to Lisa and my room, and fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed. In the process, I got more sleep last night than I have in months.

Posted in Education,Journal at 10:59 pm

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