08/05/2013 08:39 BST | Updated 07/07/2013 06:12 BST

Learning for Responsibility - Take it to The Bridge


Working on a recent assignment for a corporate client refreshed my thinking about the roles and responsibilities PLCs may have or may soon come to have in respect of an extended stakeholder constituency. It also made me reflect further on the place of learning and development in this.

What is clear is that emerging factors have combined to expose big business and its place in society to increasingly intense and critical scrutiny. A very selective list might include the banking crisis and corporate tax scandals, the shrinking state, climate change and other environmental impacts, and the inequities and injustices in value chains, so horribly highlighted at the Dhaka garment factory. Each of these and many besides have acquired greater prominence as a result of real time coverage of global events by the mainstream media and citizen journalists, the explosion of clicktivism, and globalized demographics.

To make matters more complicated, and with something approaching comic timing, the public spending attacks have handed big business greater social responsibility just as its capacity to act with integrity is in greatest public doubt.

There are real risks for business here. One is that it allows itself to be seduced by voices, influential to Coalition thinking, which urge behavioural economics. While citizens crave greater transparency, Thaler and Sunstein, authors of David Cameron's revered Nudge, advocate "asymmetrical paternalism". In other words, policies that coerce "the least sophisticated people in society" unconsciously towards officially prescribed behaviours; behaviours designed to impose "the smallest possible costs on the most sophisticated." see Nudge, 2008, p249. Take the auto enrolment pension scheme as an example: this requires individuals to actively opt out of a workplace pension. Good thing too, you might say, yet such an approach does nothing to support citizens to adopt greater individual responsibility. There is a jarring contradiction between the Right's rhetoric about the sanctity of individual choice and its enthusiasm for this brand of surreptitious social engineering.

There are better ways for any business that takes seriously the need to be transparent and to treat employees and the wider community more inclusively. Not labelling swathes of the population "least sophisticated" might be a good starting point.

For political theorist Danielle Allen there is a pressing need for a more participatory and connected society, in which social capital displaces inequity and social discord, and dialogue supplants confrontation. To bring this about in a pluralistic society, argues Allen, all parties including government, educators, faith, ethnic and community groups, campaigners, workers and employers, need to develop bridging skills; skills which enable people to talk across borders of culture and identity in ways that are respectful, open and build trust.

Are these skills in short supply? Well, research published in November of 2012 by the Public Service Academy found a deficit of skills among public sector employees for communicating and connecting with communities and for co-production, the negative impacts of which can be felt in areas such as service design and delivery, and recruitment.

It would be rash to imagine these skills exist in greater quantity or quality in the private sector.

Clearly, no one supposes business should or could provide all the answers. All the same, given the globalization of markets, workforces and value chains, companies aspiring to operate responsibly and effectively must underpin this by speaking and listening in new ways. There is a strong element of self-interest here, but also a more socially urgent imperative. Businesses should also demonstrate leadership by stimulating constructive conversations about the benefits of diversity. Mainstream political parties have increasing little stomach for this work, but the survival of western-style democracies may depend upon it. None of this will be achieved, however, if the corporate world and its representatives approach these challenges as all-knowing patriarchs.

It is possible to imagine a world in which doing good as a business means not secretively manipulating the behaviour of customers, but generating authentic dialogue about things that matter to stakeholders and to the business. In the context of auto-enrolment, for example, wouldn't it more socially responsible for pension providers to create the conditions for public dialogue around the ethical considerations of investment decisions?

As the Public Service Academy research suggests, to do this and to do this well requires skills development. One contribution my company has found effective is to initiate this type of dialogue as part of a structured experiential learning programme. This formally develops the communication and bridging skills of employees and community stakeholders, while simultaneously enabling participants to interrogate issues of genuine business and social concern, and engage in processes of co-creation.

I keep coming back to a quotation by the UK academic Stephen Gough:

"to test for a sustainable society, one of the questions you would ask would be: Are people learning all the time? "

quoted in Learning the Sustainability Lesson, tenth report of session 2002-03, Volume 2, House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, EV 20

Organisations in earnest about acting responsibly should all be working for a sustainable society. This will not happen through mere regulatory compliance, philanthropic largesse or collusion in the dishonesties of asymmetrical paternalism. Bridging the gap between our unsustainable present and a sustainable future entails building bridges between people and their groupings to co-create a tomorrow safe and just for all of us. And this will only be achieved through learning with and from one and other.