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What does a company owe to its country — and society?

Welcome to tomorrow’s corporate social responsibility.

That corporate social responsibility will be different. Very different, Oh, yes! Largely because of companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google. Plus, of course, the Millennials.

A historic CSR confluence is underway. New kinds of imperative socio-economic demands on business, reflecting a new technological and political era, are forming — even as earlier CSR issues are being re-energized.

Hyperbole? Well, let’s see – [as examined in greater length in the November 27th CSRPodcast program].

The emerging demands, arguably existential, on digital communications companies such as  Facebook, Twitter and Google, generate this question: “What does a company owe it’s country — and society?”

 In the aftermath of Russian use of these companies’ platforms to divide Americans and likely influence the 2016 election, U.S. Senators are saying, in effect, “we don’t believe you have control over what’s happening in your internet space. Fix this or we will.” The issue is nothing less than U.S. national security/democracy and the corporate responsibility to help protect it.


For these companies, there is, too, momentous concern over their potential or actual exploitation of the personal privacy and data of hundreds of millions (nay, billions) of users — not to mention the vulnerability of that data to hacking. 


New York Times columnist David Brooks has captured “The growing assault on Silicon Valley” with a commentary headlined, “How Evil Is Tech?” Excerpts:


“Not long ago, tech was the coolest industry… But over the past year the mood has shifted. Some now believe it is like the tobacco industry — corporations that make billions of dollars peddling  a destructive addiction.”


To avoid becoming a social pariah, Brooks summarizes criticisms to be addressed, including: “The tech industry is causing this addiction to make money… [They] are near monopolies that use their market power to invade the private lives of their users …” His recommendation: “Obviously, the smart play would be for the tech industry to get out in front and clean up its own pollution.”


These macro  socio-economic issues raise once again  the specter of whether companies (and, perhaps, not just these companies) will act voluntarily (CSR) or need new government regulation.


The Economist editor Zanny Minton Beddoes, writes that that train may well be leaving the station in, “The pendulum of power swings back towards the state” .

“Across the rich world politicians will turn on the technology giants — Facebook, Google and Amazon in particular — saddling them with fines, regulations and a tougher interpretation of competition rules. It will be the 21st-century equivalent of the antitrust era, with the tech giants vilified as malevolent quasi-monopolists whose behavior is weakening democracy, suppressing competition and destroying jobs. There will even be talk of breaking them up.” 


To be fair, the companies have been responsive. But they may well have to invest in a new degree of defense of their reputations, brands and licenses to operate — very likely with costly outlays of technology, people and other resources potentially affecting company profits.


Late-breaking: Another company, CSR leader IBM, faces risk to its corporate reputation and brand as it weighs the “invitation” to develop technology for the U.S. “extreme vetting” planned to identify people for visa denial and deportation.


Artificial intelligence (AI)


Consider the many substantial CSR ramifications — especially in the workplace — of the following:


Ultimately, artificial intelligence may produce machines that can think. But even in the near term, AI is delivery revolutionary workplace technology (not to mention the many “pros” and “cons” likely in future customer use).


“Artificial intelligence is going to change everything, everything, 180 degrees … There is no way to beat the machines, so you’d better bone up on what makes them tick.” – Mark Cuban.


“As we free labor up from things like manufacturing, we can shift it to some very human-centric needs [such as care for the elderly]” – Bill Gates, on how AI and robotics will reshape the labor landscape.


“We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management, and prepare for the consequences well in advance.” – Stephen Hawking, calling for appropriate regulation of AI development and application.


 • Surge of new attention to “legacy issues”.


The explosion of sexual harassment/assault cases is generating long-delayed attention to the need for reflection — and, in many cases, action — on relationships in the workplace — and  well beyond. And many companies are also being drawn into, or are naturally involved in, issues such as climate change, immigration and supply chain management.


Investors and insurers are increasingly seeking company information on such issue-related risk management. So, many CEOs are choosing to be the active, public face of their companies on critical socio-economic issues.


As in so many aspects of the evolving zeitgeist, social media is, of course, an accelerator for these changes.

And then there is the Trump Administration.  [Fill in this space as you choose.  We don’t have enough space in this format.]

 All of this as a powerful generation — the millennials — with its fast-expanding influence, is shifting professional priorities increasingly toward social impact.  

 “Here’s what millennials really want from business, and why”, according to two new studies:

 “The global business community is being challenged by millennials, who want to change the world — and the results are going to be incredible … Millennials believe business must impact society vis-à-vis issues including education, skills and training, economic stability, cyber security, health care and disease prevention, unemployment and climate change.”

 Optimists may say, “no worries, companies will adapt”. They can cite observations such as that of  Michael Harrington who contended that, “Capitalism’s most daunting characteristic is its ability to co-opt the reforms, even the radical changes, of the opponents of the system.”

Archie B. Carroll, professor emeritus of the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, has presented this historical perspective: From the 1960s through the 1990s, in response to social movements and ethics scandals, “we witnessed a broadening of the social contract between business in society.” The public began expecting businesses to do more than supply jobs, goods and services.  “Howard Schultz, Starbucks and a History of Corporate Responsibility”.

Very true. And there are similarities to the past stages of corporate social responsibility. CSR and business have adapted to changes in society many times over the decades, even over the centuries. 

But this time is different. Oh yes.

The breadth, depth, nature and velocity of current and projected change in contemporary society projects a fundamental new stage of corporate social responsibility.

The CSR synonym — corporate citizenship — seems more relevant than ever before.