GoodCorporation leads debate on ISO 26000 at the House of Lords

With the new ISO 26000 social responsibility standard due to be launched later this year, GoodCorporation invited CR specialists from some of the UK’s leading companies and organisations to debate its likely impact.

The debate began with an overview from the guest speaker of what the Standard might achieve. He began with a note of scepticism; there are so many standards of corporate responsibility in existence, creating considerable confusion that we have to ask if it really is worth producing another one?

The process has been extraordinarily lengthy, tortuous and labyrinthine, involving a huge number of working groups and committees. No one needed reminding of the potential pitfalls of design by committee.

He was also concerned that the decision to develop it as a set of guidelines, rather than a Standard with the possibility of certification, could reduce its impact and effectiveness. Having feared that ISO 26000 may fail to produce anything of any value he went on to analyse what it did have to offer and concluded that it had the potential to be really quite good.

It is impressively comprehensive, jargon-free and clear. It looks at labour standards as well as management practices and how to embed corporate responsibility. It is written in such a way that it will not alarm the corporate world nor will it disappoint wider society. It is a usable, workable standard that will provide businesses with a thorough guide to corporate responsibility. It will be particularly useful to organisations new to Corporate Responsibility, but will also provide a useful checklist for those further along the CR path.

Ensuring usage of ISO 26000 will be crucial. Here the ISO name will help, it has a lot of clout and many organisations will gravitate towards it once it is out. It has the potential to be the definitive set of guidelines on Corporate Responsibility, possibly because of the vast number of groups and organisations that have been consulted as part of the process. However, for it to have real teeth and impact, it must have certification. Businesses will clamour for measurement against it, however, this must be a carefully balanced process, for it was also felt that if achieving certification took precedence over implementing sound CR policies, that would be a huge mistake.

Here the debate began in earnest. Many in the room felt that there would be little point in following the ISO Standard unless businesses could measure CR implementation against it. For it to achieve maximum uptake it was suggested that it needed to be the CR equivalent of Investors in People – a standard of achievement that can be measured and awarded. Big businesses will be more likely to embrace the Standard and view it as a ‘must have’ if it offers certification, as the benefit of third-party assurance is great.

Yet for some, the idea of measuring Corporate Responsibility was of questionable use. Some felt that it would be good to certify against the Standard, but thought that this would be hard to achieve. Corporate Responsibility only works if it is properly embedded throughout an organisation; it is not really about measurement. It is about reproducing responsible behaviour in a reliable way across the organisation as a whole.

The danger of measurement is that it creates a compliance and tick-box culture that often misses the real point of responsible business behaviour. If implementing a standard is all about measurement, it was suggested, companies could tick all the boxes without necessarily being responsible.

Others felt that if implementing ISO 26000 would enable an organisation to show that it was a force for good, then that would be beneficial. If it would not enable an employee to see how good was being achieved, it would be of questionable use.

It was generally agreed that as a reference document, ISO 26000 would be useful and many would check alignment against it. It would be of particular benefit in emerging markets or if embarking on a Corporate Responsibility programme.

Some also felt that they would not seek certification even if it was offered. There is a certain amount of assessment fatigue with so many obligatory standards and regulations to comply with; consequently for some it was debatable whether they would be inclined to ask those they worked with to be assessed against yet another set of criteria.

Indeed, for organisations that believed good CR systems were already in place, it was questionable that the Standard would have any impact.

Yet others argued that anything that stimulates the debate on CR, beyond the FTSE 100 companies, was a good thing. If ISO 26000 can show how to embed responsible behaviour into the culture of an organisation it will be effective. However, ISO 26000 will have little or no impact if it does not show businesses how to make CR work. A number of those present at the debate felt that the language in the guidance would be very off-putting for most SMEs and that, despite efforts to make the Standard work for all types of organisations, ISO 26000, as currently drafted, is likely to hold little appeal outside a relatively small group of large companies and organisations and this was regrettable.

The credibility of the ISO was acknowledged. Good companies will use it wisely as a force for good. Those that see it merely as a box ticking exercise will be missing the point. CR evolves as businesses develop and as businesses have their own DNA they will need to learn how to apply ISO 26000 across their own organisation. ISO 26000 on its own will not make a business a good business; companies will still need to differentiate themselves and innovate in the way in which they embed CR.

Broadly ISO 26000 was welcomed. It will be reviewed and assessed by businesses and many felt that some form of certification would be essential in the longer term. As a gold standard for CR it is expected to be broadly along the right lines with the ISO name giving it credibility; however, a certain amount of scepticism remained as to whether or not it will have a real impact on responsible business behaviour.

The organisations represented in the room were divided on whether or not they would use ISO 26000 in any way once it is launched. Most of the larger organisations said that they would look at it and its requirements. There was a feeling that many of these companies might at least use it as a checklist for analysing their own performance.