3rd Annual Colloquium

The Challenge of Sustainable Growth: Integrating Societal Expectations in Business

Gent, 27-29 September 2004


Text adopted from the Corporate Governance Special Issue (Editors forewords): “Responding to Societal Expectations”. Prof. Gilbert Lenssen, Prof. Lutgart Van den  and Céline Louche.

 

Certainly the power of civil society groups and their effect on the (re)positioning of traditional stakeholders lead to a considerably more challenging decision and management environment. In the global business environment and knowledge economy, changing societal expectations are interdependent with political, economic and technological change and form part of the complexity faced by management.

 

Societal expectations are focussed largely on the wider social, environmental and governance responsibilities of business as well as on the sustainability and viability of the firm.

 

The 3rd EABIS Colloquium organised at Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School called for business relevant contributions regarding the impact of changing societal expectations at strategic, operational and governance levels. A business approach was chosen to group and discuss contributions in the areas of: 

  1. Corporate governance,
  2. Corporate and business strategy
  3. Marketing and market development
  4. Leadership and human resource management
  5. Operations and supply chain management
  6. Finance and accounting
  7. Policy making and the role of government.

The debates revealed that societal expectations towards business have so far been predominantly studied and discussed within the normative frameworks of business ethics (BE) and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Now, the attention needs to shift to corporate responsiveness and performance by focussing on questions of managerial relevance, through a more descriptive, analytical and instrumental approach.

 

The normative background for describing and analysing the institutional legitimacy of business, public responsibility of companies and ethical choices of managers remains of course crucial. But, if the field of business and society wants to earn its place at the core of business theory and practice, it needs to address the ways in which responsiveness to society can be built into the core business functions. The processes of responsiveness and performance outcomes need to receive more attention than principles of responsibility[1].

 

The functional approach was chosen, because managers find it easy to relate to, and because it makes it easier to draw conclusions for business education from both academic research and managerial practice. Business school curricula are usually built around courses in strategy, marketing, finance & accounting, operations management, and HRM.

 

Another concern addressed was that the traditional academic peer review process does not necessarily produce contributions relevant to practitioners and, in turn, that business-to-business showcasing and benchmarking does not guarantee reflective and analytical quality. Therefore the two communities need to be connected in more meaningful ways than merely being guests at each other’s events and in publications.

 

The functional approach was effective for taking stock of academic research with respect to business relevant issues. It allowed to bring in reflective contributions from practitioners in order to assess the existing gaps between academic research and practitioner concerns. It finally contributed to the “mainstreaming” of corporate responsiveness to society from a largely peripheral matter to the core of business theory and practice.

 

Whilst the scope and quality of academic research in the field of Business & Society is undoubtedly growing, there are still considerable gaps within corporate knowledge needs regarding managing processes of responsiveness and performance outcomes.

 

The views and approaches of academics and practitioners in the areas of Governance, Strategy, Leadership and Governance are complementary; as well as the marked differences in perceptions and approaches in the areas of Marketing, Operations and Finance. Whilst the quality and relevance of academic research has increased considerably; there is still progress to be made in setting of and adhering to standards of reflective quality of practitioner contributions.

 

Some links to the mainstream management literature are clearly missing:

  • Comparative strategic analysis between industry sectors
  • Strategic accounting and the balanced scorecard
  • Human resource management (across the board, with the exception of leadership development)

The crucial question remains why the achievements of academic research and practitioner knowledge development are hardly noticeable in the core courses at most business schools. 

 

Overall, a functional approach has served well in pursuing the 3 objectives mentioned above; but it also presented some drawbacks. Issues related to corporate responsiveness to growing societal expectations are often multi-functional and require a multi-disciplinary approach.

 

Especially the need to better understand the economic, political and cultural drivers and consequences of globalization and how these affect societal expectations is left largely unaddressed. Equally, the effect of CR on the overall theory of the firm was hardly touched on. The business community is keenly interested in fundamental questions that go beyond questions for instrumental and applied knowledge[2].


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