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Research Digest How company-level power dynamics shape the adoption of global CSR practices

Overview

In Revisiting Politics in Political CSR: How coercive and deliberative dynamics operate through institutional work in a Colombian company, published in Organization Studies, Professor Aurélien Acquier, along with co-authors Pilar Acosta and Jean-Pascal Gond, analysed the dynamics taking place within a Colombian sugar company during the implementation of a client's global Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme, which radically transformed the local understanding of the suppliers' social responsibilities.

Why study this

Global sustainability and CSR standards have led to the emergence of soft-law regulations at the transnational level. While this phenomenon has been studied at the macro level, little attention has been devoted to the micro level of analysis, to find out how such policies are adopted or adapted locally. This empirical study of a middle-sized sugar producer in a rural part of Colombia (SugarCo), where the historical tradition of corporate philanthropy is strong, provides a revealing picture of how global CSR programs are implemented in emerging countries and at the bottom of the supply chain, and how new global CSR regulations may coexist with local understandings and traditions of CSR, and what the impacts are in terms of social welfare.

Findings

  • Before contemporary CSR programs, there was a local CSR tradition, mainly rooted in paternalism, religion and philanthropy, where the company had a strong involvement and role with the local community.
  • This traditional understanding of CSR was reframed by local managers through various forms of identity work, setting the conditions for adopting a formalised and ‘explicit’ approach to CSR.
  • This organisational identity work redefined the social and economic role of the company, shifting its identity from a ‘family’ to a ‘performance-driven’ company and setting boundaries to the company's traditional paternalistic, charitable involvement with the community. 
  • The sugar company's managers conducted theorisation work with external consultants, to reframe CSR in terms of content and organisation structures, and reconsider who and what fell inside the scope of CSR. 
  • Bureaucratising work consisted in developing indicators to improve the managerial control, accountability and auditability of CSR-related practices, and in replicating the CSR implementation approach with the company's own suppliers.
  • The fourth type of institutional work that lower-level managers performed was strategifying work, or labelling as ‘strategic’ traditional CSR activities, and having them valorised by seeking third-party legitimation of these activities.
  • During the adoption of explicit CSR, two competing coalitions of actors emerged: a ‘social coalition’ with members of the human resource management team, and a ‘commercial coalition’ which included the change manager, quality manager, production manager, logistics manager and warehouse manager. 
  • These coalitions both engaged in organisational work, but in ways that gave rise to three different configurations of political dynamics: coercive (irreconcilable) politics, i.e. power games based on resources and the use of formal authority; deliberative politics (through discussion and negotiation) or complementary politics, whereby each coalition entered distinct dynamics.   
  • These power dynamics shaped the hybridisation of CSR programs, as the ‘social coalition’ mobilised deliberative politics that either “tamed” or complemented the more coercive approach of the ‘commercial coalition’ to influence organisational outcomes.

Our data shows a shift from a paternalistic approach to a more business-oriented, bureaucratic and managerial one. This shift is exemplified by elements such as the marginalization of the priest, who was no longer invited to CSR meetings, or the introduction of new topics (in particular food safety, sustainability reporting, CSR strategy and a governance code) to reflect client demands and redefine the corporate identity as an accountable food processing company.

Key insight

This study reveals a process of CSR hybridization in which elements from local, ‘implicit’ CSR, rooted in Catholic principles, philanthropy and paternalism, are combined with externally-driven, ‘explicit’ CSR based on a formalised Western understanding of corporate responsibility.

Impact

The local power dynamics at play among middle managers take on multiple forms, from ‘coercive’ power games to ‘deliberative’ processes of discussion and negotiation, all of which interact and ultimately shape the local adoption of global CSR programs. 

Final takeaway

“While demands for CSR from a global perspective create a clear tendency towards the strategic reframing of CSR in emerging countries, most standards rarely prescribe specific practices or levels of performance [...]. The breadth and malleability of such global CSR standards leave a certain degree of latitude for local managers to decide which practices to maintain, change, create or disrupt.”

AUTHORS


Pilar Acosta Pilar Acosta Professor in the Management, innovation and entrepreneurship department at École Polytechnique and ESCP Business School PhD graduate
Aurélien Acquier Aurélien Acquier Professor of Management & Sustainability at ESCP Business School
Jean-Pascal Gond Jean-Pascal Gond Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility at Cass Business School, City, University of London

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