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“Shared Value” champions survey HBS grads; report realism on “corporate social action” limits, opportunities

On “shared value” — as on many other society-bending concepts — distinctions must be made.

This morning, New York Times Economic Scene columnist Eduardo Porter delivered a basketful of such distinctions in analyzing a new survey of Harvard Business School graduates. The survey, authored by “shared value” guru Harvard Professor Michael E. Porter and two faculty associates, “offers good reason to temper one’s optimism” according to columnist Eduardo Porter.

His interpretation is based largely on macro economics. Business shared value programs, he suggests, have promising outcomes but are encumbered with a heavy caveat: “The case for enlisting corporations to address rising inequality and stagnant mobility warrants some skepticism. For starters, social and corporate objectives are not always aligned … Addressing social problems will have to take a back seat to the bottom line.”

Of course we defer to Professor Michael E. Porter and his shared-value colleagues to offer any full-throated response, but a top-line rejoinder from this long-time CSR, sustainable development — and more recently, shared value– advocate:

The many thousands of corporate leaders who have bought into this 21st-century business model (The UN Global Compact has over 12,000 such company members) are each primarily focused on their stakeholders’ interests. The cumulative effect, they realize, may also have some positive movement in society as a whole (hence Business In Society).

Too, many benefits of the shared value philosophy in business are hard to measure at “the bottom line”. But there are valiant efforts underway to do so. Topmost: the movement toward “integrated reporting” in which hundreds of companies are estimating and reporting the value of their social-impact initiatives in comprehensive annual reports. And, more specifically, there are now many types of corporate shared value programs — ranging from market development via sustainable development in LDCs to progressive workforce policies reducing turnover costs and improving efficiency.

Significantly, later this month the United Nations will formally launch its Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals program in which business, largely via the UN Global Compact, will play a increasingly significant role.

Happily, the evolution of shared value, CSR and sustainable development principles and implementation is proceeding with increasing momentum.