Sandra Waddock, the Galligan Chair of Strategy and Professor of Management in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, was here at the Rio conference 20 years ago, and she will be part of it once again at Rio+20. I spoke with her via Skype to ask her about the main challenges our society is facing and about her expectations for the outcomes of the conference. Sandra thinks that corporate and system inertia is a huge challenge that we need to address, and that awareness will play a major role in decreasing inertia and fighting social problems.
Ms. Waddock, with an amazing 50 pages curriculum vita, has not only broad experience in strategy, business, public-private partnerships, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and corporate citizenship, but also in system change and the issue of growth as a problem. She is the author and co-author of several books, the latest ones are ‘SEE Change: Making the Transition to a Sustainable Enterprise Economy‘, and ‘The Difference Makers: How Social and Institutional Entrepreneurs Created the Corporate Responsibility Movement.’ Besides all of her achievements, she is inspiring, charming and has a great sense of humor.
The points Ms. Waddock discussed about inertia were intriguing. Inertia is the resistance to motion, action, or change. It is the tendency of a body to preserve its state of motion unless acted upon an external force. The world is changing, and it is changing fast: there is no doubt about it. Uncertainty and complexity surround interactions between societies, companies, economies, nations, and anything else you could think about. What’s the role of inertia in such a dynamic world?
As Ms. Waddock explained to me during the interview (please listen below), inertia is a huge challenge that stands in between our actual economy and a Sustainable Enterprise Economy (SEE). Big firms are reluctant to change when they are doing well financially. How then, do we get to the point where they make the big transition that needs to happen? Where, when, and how can corporations find the right incentives to steer into a more sustainable existence? Hopefully now, in Rio, with a special focus in the green economy and sustainable development, some of these questions will be answered.
According to Ms. Waddock, there is no one main problem in our society: there is a whole set of interrelated problems. Many of these problems have to do with education and equity. She explains that it is difficult for people that have resources to recognize the problems of those who do not have resources. For her, social justice must be achieved, and for this, more people to speak truth to those in power are needed. She argues that awareness must be raised and it is an educational task. Policies play a key role here, as they could better support the creation of more equitable systems, she says.
We could blame many of our actual problems on ignorance. On a myopic view of the future and an unmemorable view of the past. Only when awareness is raised, people will understand and believe in the sustainability issues facing the planet (among many others), and then we will be able to start taking hard actions. System change is needed, and to accomplish this, thinking outside-the-box is necessary: awareness should beat that monstrous inertia that is slowing the improvement process. Ms. Waddock told me that her main expectations from Rio+20 is the raised awareness from participants and followers, their willingness to rethink things and to see the system as it really is. She expects reporters to have the courage to say what they see, be critical, and willing to take the knowledge and put it out there.
In the interview, Ms. Waddock explains (among many other things):
- How the concept of corporate social responsiblity (CSR) has evolved over time. From being understood as the social part of a business, completely detached from the business vision, to an integral part of the business model. This concept is also evolving into corporate citizenship, where companies are regarded as individuals whithin a territory, they have ratings just as individual people have.
- Why CSR is specially important for big firms. They are big and powerful, therefore visible and targets to critics. How some firms just try to do green washing, but others are taking it much more seriously, setting huge sustainability agendas.
- How to get to know the firms’ values, how to choose a good and interesting employer, if you decide to invest your valuable youth and future years working for one of them.
Sustainability heads from plenty of huge companies (like Disney or Puma) are going to attend the UN Global Compact. I hope inertia can abandon their mindsets and they really manage to align their operations and strategies with the ten universally accepted principles, but not only for profits but also because they are convinced that it is the sensible and fair way to go.
(Please note that the first two minutes of the interview are a little bit noisy, but it doesn’t take long until it is clear again)