Learning Delivery

Can Corporate Universities Play a Role in CSR? Should They?

Members of Generation Y — and to a lesser extent, Gen Xers — are commonly said to desire two things from their employers: robust development opportunities and a sense of social responsibility. These corporate “carrots” are fine by themselves, but never the twain shall meet, right?

Maybe not. Annick Renaud-Coulon, an international thought leader in learning and development and the principal founder of the Global Council of Corporate Universities, believes there can and should be a relationship between the two. In fact, she’s spent a substantial part of her recent career advocating greater involvement from corporate universities in their organizations’ CSR initiatives.

Specifically, she envisions these institutions as a kind of intra-organizational communications broker.


“Their role isn’t to take the place of the departments whose job is to decide social and environmental strategies, implement them or manage their application,” she said. “Corporate universities are there to bring different parties together. Their main role is to make corporate responsibility an effective leadership tool for business strategies and corporate identity. So they must develop programs that provide action learning for employees and external stakeholders to help them understand this fundamental issue.”

Renaud-Coulon’s point of view is undoubtedly influenced in part by her European heritage. In stark contrast to the United States, where there are more definitive distinctions between the public and private sectors, the relationship between business and government in the eurozone is much closer. Also, as she points out, people “become citizens through education,” and as institutions of learning, corporate universities can play a part in helping employees fulfill civic responsibilities.

“In Europe, the emphasis is placed on solidarity,” Renaud-Coulon said. “The vast majority of these companies are happy to publish an annual social and environmental report, unlike their counterparts on other continents. Although European companies are not legally obliged to train their workforces to adopt socially and environmentally responsible behavior, corporate universities have started to play a vital role in encouraging this [behavioral] transformation.”

Thus, most European corporations feel compelled to use as many means as they can, including their learning functions, to achieve social ends that might not always have a clear impact on the bottom line. However, cultural considerations aside, Renaud-Coulon said there is a convincing business case to be made for further integration of an organization’s corporate university and its CSR strategies and programs.

“The business case is value creation through managing internal and external stakeholders, with whom it is important to develop intelligent cooperation and control methods. There needs to be a review of the sponsorship of competencies and the donation economy, as well as the relationship between NGOs, rating agencies and international government institutions. There’s a new way of seeing things and a new way of governance. And this cannot be achieved without help. This is where the internal [corporate] university comes into play: It can help managers understand the local and distant environments in which the company operates and acquire new competencies, and define and implement a new strategic agenda for their organization.”

Many learning executives in the United States understand that the corporate university can provide new competencies for the workforce and even offer information to organizational leaders about operational environments, but they might not have thought about how to apply this to their enterprises’ efforts around social responsibility. Yet Renaud-Coulon is convinced that it will take off on this side of the Atlantic, too.

“In the U.S., where philanthro-capitalism is widespread, companies tend to make a distinction between the CU’s business education offer on the one hand, and corporate responsibility programs provided by the corporate foundation — or by the division that manages diversity, sustainable development and so on — on the other hand,” she said. “But these offers do exist; this is where the ethical movement began. It appears that universities are going to be increasingly involved in providing social and environmental responsibility programs, quite simply because there is increasing pressure from the stakeholders to do so.

“The worthy principles of corporate social responsibility, sustainable development and corporate citizenship are being knitted together by companies, international organizations, rating agencies and civil society. But these fine and intelligent principles are only worthy if they leave the drawing board! It’s not enough for corporate leaders and directors of communication to commit themselves to this responsibility initiative because, if their ideas and vision are not inculcated into all their colleagues, nothing will happen on the ground. They need an Archimedes lever to transform intention into concrete action. It is my conviction that the university is in the best position to play this role.”

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