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Driven by Innovation: Corporate Culture & Responsibility

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Joel Makower at the 2010 World Innovation Forum

Photo courtesy: PhotographybyDov.com

What themes do you expect to emerge when you gather a bunch of leading businesspeople and experts on innovation and organizational change, and have them present their thoughts in a two-day conference in New York City?

Bonus point if you guessed innovation as a theme, but only because I haven’t yet revealed the name of the conference: The World Innovation Forum. As such, presenters were long on how cultures of innovation can be fostered and nurtured within companies, and very specific in underlining the point that companies that fail to innovate today will fail to thrive in coming years.

Up until the second day of the conference, most of the talk around innovation concerned the how of the subject. If the why was mentioned at all, it was usually couched in terms of general benefit: it’s good for your company’s bottom line; it’s good for your career; it’ll help you keep up with—or stay ahead of—your competitors.

Towards the middle of the second and final day, however, the tone shifted markedly, with three consecutive speakers laying out one of the biggest challenges requiring innovation today, and making it strikingly clear what was at stake. The challenge: sustainability and corporate responsibility. Tackling it were green expert Joel Makower, Seventh Generation founder and CEO Jeffrey Hollender, and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns.

The middle speaker of the three, it was Makower who really summed up the position we’re at in terms of the progression the green concept has made in the corporate world. Companies are at the stage where green practices are creating value for them, he said, having passed through two prior phases: the phase of “first do no harm,” where companies simply sought to not cause problems; and the phase of “doing well by doing good,” where corporate responsibility was seen as something nice to attain, but more of a luxury than a means of generating revenue.

Despite speaking before Makower, Ursula Burns proved his key point by demonstrating that Xerox is creating value from green. Her definition of innovating towards a sustainable future is to “take something that’s needed […] and innovate it to use less than in the past.” While that may seem like a strange message from the leader of a company that essentially thrives on consumables—and particularly on usage of paper—Burns stressed that companies cannot afford to ignore what the marketplace is demanding. Accordingly, the company has developed a paper that erases itself so it can be reused, and has invested heavily in solid ink technology, which Xerox’s website claims produces 90 percent less waste than a typical color laser product.

Jeffrey Hollender’s presentation also centered on the idea of reducing waste—a concept that is at the heart of his company and his recent book, The Responsibility Revolution. Expressing his frustration at not being able to reduce Seventh Generation’s footprint more than he has—while better than many, he said the company “is not what I would call good”—he came back to the idea that culture sets the tone for what companies can achieve. Pointing to the recent travails of Goldman Sachs and BP, he suggested that those companies’ problems are at heart to do with culture: “sustainability and green is about company culture,” he said, with a crucial component of that culture being a willingness by executives to listen to their employees and consumers—something that he felt was likely lacking in the cultures at Goldman and BP.

All told, while each of the three speakers covered slightly different ground, the common message in what they had to say suggests that the future of business could be one in which the most successful companies are the ones that manage to create products that fulfil the needs of a changing, more eco-conscious marketplace.

Or, as Hollender suggested “we won’t have businesses that begin to meet the challenges of the society that we live in” until sustainability and CSR is embedded at the heart of corporate strategy, and drives all of the decision making.

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