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CSR Managers 'Dying on the Battlefield'


2 July 2014 at 11:48 am
Lina Caneva
A bleak outlook for sustainability managers is compounded by a disconnect with the academic community, practitioners have lamented at a national CSR conference.

Lina Caneva | 2 July 2014 at 11:48 am


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CSR Managers 'Dying on the Battlefield'
2 July 2014 at 11:48 am

A bleak outlook for sustainability managers is compounded by a disconnect with the academic community, practitioners have lamented at a national CSR conference.

Lend Lease’s General Manager of Sustainability, Anita Mitchell told the C-Lab, hosted by the Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, that “the view from the trenches ain't pretty.”

“We’re dying on the battlefield. It’s a tough gig being a sustainability practitioner in corporate Australia as it currently stands,” she said.  

“I think there is a level of arrogance where I look at [academics] as being too academic and they look at me probably as being arrogant and not necessarily as theoretical as I need to be – bumbling around trying to figure out what I’m meant to be doing!

“We are in disagreement about some things but we are in furious agreement that we need to bridge that divide.

“Secretly, I don’t read academic articles! I’ve been doing this for 20 years.

“I would dearly love for academics to produce digestible theories for my everyday practice. Equivalent to being down at the trenches to where the next big opportunity is.

“Citations are not going to make businesses better… focusing how applicable your theories are and making those digestible to people on the ground is when we will se systemic change.

“At the coalface, we need those scholarly articles. But we need them translated.”

Professor Edward Freeman of the Darden School University of Virginia said that all academics had ever tried to do was give an account of what businesses were actually doing.

“I would caution the buying in to what’s being whispered into your ear – that there’s a theory practice gap here,” he said.

“I really think the theory-practice divide…it’s part of the story that we enact every day. We enact it by saying, ‘well, we’ve got to get these academics together and we’ve got to tell them how the world really is’. Or, on the other side, academics say, ‘we have to go and dip our toes into practice to see if this actually works.”

Freeman conceded there was some credence to the notion of a theory-practice division.

“There’s not a single practitioner or manager that I know who’s waiting for the latest issue of a leading academic issue!”

“To be good at professional practice and management, you have to be involved in business. Many times that’s missing.”

Freeman said “there are lots of places to look” and that business schools could be a starting point to help bridge the gap.

Mitchell said the primary issue remained a lack of translation from theory to practice.

“It’s inaccessibility of what academics are actually studying. Its not an accessible field.  They're not getting out there to areas where practitioners are getting information.

“It’s not coming back to us as good management frameworks.”

Mitchell lamented the lack of a professional body for sustainability managers and emphasised the variation within the field.

“Sustainability practitioners are from very varied backgrounds – we colour our practice by virtue of what we’re comfortable with,” she said.

“Most sustainability practitioners are shoved from pillar to post and nobody quite knows where to put them.

“What I’m here to tell you is that life at the coalface is bloody tough! It’s lonely, it’s full of setbacks…you’re moving people out of their comfort zone and you’re getting them to change, what they do, every day…it’s making people challenge their status quo.

“Anything that requires change is hard – it’s inherently challenging, even if for the positive.”

The conference, held in partnership with the International Association for Business and Society and ACCSR‘s new Not for Profit arm CSRconnect.ed, brought together scholars and CSR practitioners in Sydney for a dialogue on responsible business.


Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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One comment

  • Mowgli Mowgli says:

    YESSSSSSS!!! I was just thinking yesterday on the bus about this issue, and how I've probably only brought roughly 30% of what I learnt about in a 4 year sustainable development degree at UQ into my career. I think you could learn virtually all of the theoretical side of sustainability into 2-3 semesters. Yet what's missing in university programs is the set of knowledge and skills to put those learnings into practice. For example – How do you actually go about creating a sustainability strategy and framework? How do you tell a story effectively? Or methods for dealing with people who have negligible understanding of sustainability concepts or those who are outright obstructionist? What are some project management tools that could come in use? Appropriate cost-benefit analysis? I think the university that integrates the above into their sustainability degrees will produce the most successful graduates.

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