For the fourth year in a row Jean E. Kilgore, a senior lecturer of Marketing and Policy Studies at Case’s Weatherhead School of Management, attended the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) annual conference, an event she eagerly anticipates each year. Kilgore see the conference, designed largely for practitioners from publicly-held corporations and attracting well over 1,000 participants, as an enormously rich source of information on emerging issues in business. This offers her a unique perspective on challenging areas with great research potential.
“One of the things I like most about the BSR conference is the conversations I hear and participate in,” said Kilgore. “They tend to be one step ahead of the BSR conference itself.”
She doesn’t like the term “CSR” (Corporate Social Responsibility) because she is not sure what it really means but does think that it reflects a subtle, ongoing shift in what Jim Walsh of the University of Michigan refers to as the “nature of the firm”. The BSR conference, Kilgore said, offers academics a valuable opportunity to gain the perspectives needed to participate meaningfully in this conversation. It provides attendees with exposure to a wide range of current issues in the “business and society field,” shows how extensively these issues are tied to corporate operations and strategy, and demonstrates how dramatically the issues, and questions, are evolving from year to year.
Where is CSR, which Kilgore describes as a “very fragmented field”, evolving? She believes the answer to this question will vary by industry and will be influenced by myriad other factors – including the strength of the public and voluntary sectors.
“A lot of it [CSR] is just plain, old good management,” said Kilgore. “But what’s really interesting to me are the CSR dilemmas. Questions about how to grapple with the complexities of the global marketplace dominate the BSR conference.”
Her favorite BSR breakout session was “Fixing the Governance Gap: Whose Job is it?” where the discussion of the role of government brought many complex issues at the heart of “CSR” to light. The panel, which featured Jane Nelson, director of the CSR Initiative at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, also included Nancy Boswell, managing director of Transparency International USA; Sanjay Gandhi, global project manager for Growing Sustainable Business Initiatives, a program of the Bureau of Resources and Strategic Partnerships and the U.N. Development Programme; Dan Runde, director of the Global Alliance Secretariat; and Matt Hirschland, director of research and communications for BSR. “Companies involved in social issues,” Kilgore said, “find it gets messy. Who are they to decide what’s important? What do they leave to the public sector to resolve? What does all this say about the issue of governance? How can a company do enough to make meaningful change?”
Kilgore says that, if able, she would go to the BSR conference each year just for the sheer joy of the learning experience. She notes with a smile that this conference is “not for wimps.” It consistently addresses complex issues, without sugar coating them or shying away from the hard questions. Yet the event brims with optimism, energy, and collegiality.
“It is a very exciting three days,” said Kilgore. “People who attend for the first time are blown away by it.”
Although the conference is not cheap, Kilgore says BSR does offer academic discounts and recommends that anyone considering attending commit themselves to the entire three days to immerse themselves in the many conversations and breakout sessions available. Each year the conference addresses a new theme that seems to emerge from issues of concern that surfaced during the previous conference. This year the topic was “Questioning Assumptions: Changing Frameworks”. Kilgore suspects, based on the conversations she heard, that next year’s conference will explore even further the relationships among the business, government, and NGO sectors.
For information about the conference and for a wealth of information on the field of CSR, visit bsr.org.