SME Leaders Make Sense of CSR

During the last decades, a whole series of concepts have been launched in what has developed to a new management field : the business and society field also called the social issue in management. These concepts include corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship, corporate social performance, sustainable development, stakeholder theory, and business ethics. Unfortunately, there is a lack of consistency and coherence, in the academic definitions and use of concepts related to business ethics and social responsibility such as corporate social responsibility (‘CSR’), corporate citizenship, corporate social performance, sustainable development, stakeholder theory, and business ethics.

If academic researchers are not able to clearly distinguish between CSR and related concepts, how can one expect the business community to understand the meanings and differential characteristics of these concepts? Yves Fassin, led a research team that tackled this problem and investigated how small-business owner-managers make sense of concepts related to CSR and business ethics. The researchers studied the content of the mental models, that help managers process information, ‘make sense’ of the business and society field and ultimately make decisions.

23 small-business owners, were interviewed following a rigorous methodology, the so-called Repertory Grid Technique (RGT). No less than 20 different constructs emerged. The ‘relevance for the own situation’ was the most spontaneously elicited concept by nearly 75% of the participants. Three other constructs were raised by more than 60% of the respondents:

  • ‘essentiality’,
  • ‘voluntariness versus compliance’,
  • ‘profitability versus values’.

 More than half of the business leaders raised the constructs:

  • ‘goal versus means’,
  • ‘operational versus strategic’,
  • ‘degree of formality’,
  • ‘broad versus narrow’,
  • ‘single versus multiple stakeholders’.

The major three dimensions shared by the 23 interviewees represented the ‘abstract vs. concrete’ dimension: ‘the corporate vs. societal’ and a ‘common vs. particular’ focus. In a pragmatic manner, small-business owner-managers form their own cognitive models. They receive information through non-academic channels, mainly through professional organisations and simplifying articles in the business press. Sense-making indeed occurs among small-business owners. The study also illustrated a certain disconnect between academics and practitioners. Some understanding of the real managerial world should be required of scholars engaged in management research, especially in CSR and ethics, as well as cognisance of the specific issues that concern small-business and entrepreneurship. The study confirmed the importance of social and cultural dimensions, such as values and norms, in small family firms, where non-economic rationales are considered in a long-term approach. In a pragmatic way, the small-business owner has recognised the complementarity between shareholder value and CSR-related concepts.

The small-business owners embraced the distinctions between three basic complementary concepts:

  • corporate responsibility,
  • corporate governance and
  • business ethics.

But at the same time they found these concepts as essentially interrelated and interconnected. All of the major concepts relating to business and society complement and reinforce each other.

The results presented at the Academy of Management Annual Conference and at the European Business Ethics Network conference received enthusiastic reactions from researchers from other countries: they wanted to see if small business leaders perceived those notions in a similar way and whether their sense-making is influenced by the local culture or the national business system. The same study has since been undertaken in France, Italy, Norway, Spain and UK. The team is guided by Yves Fassin and Annick Van Rossem; it benefits from the active participation from researchers of leading business schools such as EM Lyon and Norwegian School of Management.

Related article

Van Rossem A. Fassin Y. Buelens M. 2011. Small-Business Owner-Managers' Perceptions of business ethics and CSR-related concepts. Journal of Business Ethics. 97 (1) : 1 -29.

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