Does Benchmarking Work for CSR? I’m Not So Sure
Benchmarking rarely encourages better Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices! Just here me out. “what are other companies doing to improve their CSR program?”, “what issues do they focus on?”, “how are they volunteering in their local communities?”, “how do our peers create programming with community partners?”, these are all legitimate questions to ask when creating, redesigning and improving a CSR program. To answer these questions, many companies engage in benchmarking to determine what competitors, peers and others within their industry are doing. It’s natural (and often a good idea) to seek insight on the performance of those you’re ranked against. And of course, this all underscores why benchmarking is a common practice for comparing processes and performance metrics of what may be considered an “industry best” or “best practice”.
Matter of fact, the practice of benchmarking has been around for decades and is consistently one of the top-rated management tools globally. According to the 2017 Bain Management Tools & Trends Survey, benchmarking has placed as the third highest management tool since the year 2000. That’s over two decades. And while it was ranked lower throughout the 90’s, it was still ranked the fifth highest.
But maybe there’s an argument to be made about benchmarking perpetuating the status quo. Maybe benchmarking is a part of the problem. Maybe benchmarking falls short of providing the insights we're looking for that aid in the decision-making process. Would you agree?
Maybe not immediately, but you may after you realize the following; one, other companies (and the communities they’re serving) often have disparate needs and two, the likelihood of having true insight to whether or not they actually achieved their intended CSR program outcomes as a result of applying their “best practice” is slim to none. Not to mention, many who engage in the practice of benchmarking may unconsciously be motivated to just match practices, not surpass. Why? Because benchmarking looks at past practices, not those happening in real-time. Nor does it predict or show future performance.
If you’re like me I suspect you see the issue with matching and not surpassing when it comes to solving critical issues in the community. To make matters worse, the way benchmarking is often used as a tool may actually lead to actions that at best only emulate practices that may not be great for the company or community, thus reinforcing the status quo.
So, from my perspective benchmarking isn’t always a good practice. Those like me engaged in social impact may actually be better off if we didn’t benchmark CSR practices and programs that we often agree are average at best but are coined as “best”, those that only perpetuate the status quo or that may be unique to specific industries.
Think about this for a second, can you imagine a world where before going all in on Tesla, Elon Musk asked “what is General Motors doing?” or before launching SpaceX asked “well, what is NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) doing?” because at the time they were applying “best practices”, and then benchmarked off those practices to make decisions for both Tesla and SpaceX? We probably wouldn’t have fleets of electric vehicles like we do now, nor would we have massive space-going rockets that land vertically on their behinds like we see in the cartoons.
So, maybe in order to get out of this rut we have to approach CSR practices differently. I’m going to share some thoughts for your reaction. And in regular fashion I’m going to take this time to opine, so buckle up.
One common action I see CSR professionals take is asking other CSR professionals about their company's specific CSR strategy. We ask others to share overviews of their strategy and programming model. But, maybe in order to create stronger performing CSR programs we should stop doing this.
Hindsight is 20/20.
When I think back through all the conference presentations, program overviews and conversations where another CSR professional clues me in on their programming model and strategy It’s clear how little that actually aided in my successfully creating programs with community-based partners. And maybe I’m in the minority here, but I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this way.
I’d even add that in some ways trying to glean practices from another company’s CSR program in attempts to making our own programs better may in some ways be clouding our judgement or even be limiting our creative thinking.
Those who know me personally know I rarely ask other CSR professionals about their programs, join discussions or watch presentations where other companies have the stage to talk about what they’re supporting and how they’re doing it.
I know what you’re thinking, it’s important to understand what the competition is doing and emerging trends in the field. I agree with that. But I’d argue that after you know what a competitor or peer is doing you should proceed with caution. I'd actually argue that you should actually clear that from your memory bank.
As it relates to programming I create with community-based partners, I don’t allow industry competitors and peers to influence my actions, because that would assume what they’re already doing is great. And often times it’s not. So, I really don’t put to much stock in knowing what competitors and peers are doing. Nor should you. Here’s why. Most companies that have a forum to speak on CSR rarely talk about practices that are relevant to or benefit the majority or those seeking inspiration. I’d even argue that most speak on practices and share stories of success, and never actually reveal where they’ve failed and how they overcame challenges.
That’s not helpful.
So, we have to always be careful to not let that influence our next move, because what I’ve actually seen is that most CSR programs are creating different versions of vanilla ice cream.
Don’t take that to mean competitors and peers aren’t doing good work; it just means most of us are creating vanilla flavored ice cream and just have different recipes for the same flavor. Some of us use more egg, others may use less egg but add more whole vanilla bean instead of extract from a bottle. But none of that will help you make chocolate ice cream if that's what you're attempting to make.
Here’s my point. It may be a good idea for CSR professionals at large to reduce the amount of time we might spend listening to how another company conducts CSR. The other company is likely serving the community through the unique business model that made them uniquely successful in their industry.
What makes them uniquely successful may never work for you, and yes, this includes their CSR program strategy. And while I point out some of the obvious, what may not be immediately obvious is that benchmarking can sometimes have a way of stunting innovation and new ideas because there are a ton of assumptions that may point to “average” practices as being “best”.
In this sense if we’re benchmarking CSR practices from another company, in many ways we’ll begin to ignore the unique needs of our own company and those of the community.
And I get it, “best in industry” is a nice title when being ranked. But I think many of us in this field of CSR can also agree that “best” in practice (specific to CSR programming) is still falling short of the needs in the communities we’re serving.
So, here’s a thought. Rather than benchmarking off a competitor or peer, add some originality and creativity to how you shape CSR programming. Think about what’s not being done, and add that to your program. Noodle on that for a second.
Just because a competitor or peer's CSR program is ranked high doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best thing to emulate. And just because a specific action isn’t currently being done doesn’t automatically make it bad. I suspect before rockets could land vertically on their rear ends people laughed at that concept, yet, it’s what we can all now point to as the future of rocketry. So, instead of matching a peer, take a new or different approach to solving a critical issue that’s not currently being practiced by that same competitor or peer. Then after that, determine how that may actually be a “better” approach to take. Don’t get hung up on whether someone else is doing it. If someone else isn’t doing it, that doesn’t mean it has less value, it may just mean others have less creativity, less innovation and have not yet discovered a better way forward.
Here’s my call to action for other CSR professionals. Think independently beyond what’s considered a “best practice”. The practice described or ranked as “best” is likely falling incredibly short of the needs on the community. The person who discovers a better way forward could be you. Thanks for reading my rant, stay Responsible AF!