My friend Professor Gregory Unruh of Thunderbird School of Global Management has written a fine post for Harvard Business Review: “Apple and the ‘Little Dutch Boy’ Strategy.”
Professor Unruh suggests that Apple is behaving like the “Little Dutch Boy,” temporarily plugging the dyke of rising stakeholder CSR expectations with a finger.
The post raises a series of points worthy of reflection.
Reasons for Optimism at Apple?
The article places Apple among the many companies who basically have no sustainability or CSR strategy. Such companies respond to public outcries, or, perhaps “do” CSR add-ons for public relations.
Is this the case for Apple? Perhaps so, perhaps not. New CEO Tim Cook is publicly committed to advancing various CSR initiatives. He has arguably raised expectations, making CSR a defining, distinguishing point of his tenure. It’s clear to everyone that he will be evaluated in part on this basis.
Will Apple move credibly toward making corporate social responsibility part of its business value proposition? There’s reason for optimism. The Foxconn imbroglio had impact precisely because Apple users demand products that do not cause toxic damage to workers. This would not require deep polling or focus groups. Apple executives surely recognize that one of the reasons their customer base pays a premium is a sense that the company is different in its values.
In the language of Serve to Lead, Apple is creating value by advancing values it shares with its customers and other stakeholders. Not least among those stakeholders are many of Apple’s employees, contractors and investors.
Should Apple fail to meet expectations for ethical supply chain management, for example, the consequences could be severe, lasting. To the extent the company gets out front of such issues in a smart way, it can earn an additional competitive advantage. People with Apple logo decals on their cars, with Apple products in their laps and hands, often express an intimate bond with the brand. Mr. Cook and others surely recognize this.
Greenpeace, Too, Must Earn 21st Century Leadership
The Unruh article presumes the credibility of Greenpeace, standing in judgment of Apple’s environmental performance. For middle-aged and older people that’s understandable. Yet Greenpeace, like Apple, is benefiting from a legacy reputation. And, like Apple, Greenpeace will have to adapt to the rising expectations of 21st century stakeholders.
Greenpeace added significant value in the emergence of environmental consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s. Their approach was, fundamentally, to stand apart from companies and governments as a matter of course. They tended to favor confrontation, and declined opportunities to collaborate with other stakeholders. They apparently saw collaboration as a road to compromise that could endanger their independence and consciousness-raising role.
Will Greenpeace earn an authoritative place in the new era? At the dawn of the 21st century, much has changed. Collaboration is at least as valuable as confrontation in a time when environmental protection is a shared, established value, most especially among the young. Among other things, this can alter the mix of core competencies required, particularly the addition of technical and regulatory expertise. So, too, Greenpeace, like other NGOs and corporations, is facing heightened expectations of transparency in its own financing and operations.
Greenpeace will need to continue to evolve. So will government’s role in relation to companies and NGOs. Each player in the tableau must find–and earn–a new place. As they do, environmental and CSR advancement will continue, creating new value in new ways.
Insurgent… or Incumbent?
Apple now finds itself in the apparently isolated yet treacherous waters of success. Will Tim Cook effectively sustain an insurgent culture? Or will the company slouch toward the entropy of incumbency?
Apple’s tremendous cash reserves, its increasing acceptance as an institutional long-term equity play, and its unique relationship with its devoted customer base give it a running head start.
I’m optimistic–perhaps a bit more than Professor Unruh’s post would point toward. The tides of 21st century leadership and management are increasingly coming into everyone’s view who has a desire to look ahead. Doing the right thing in a today’s world of transparency is, soon enough, a competitive advantage. Conversely, not doing the right thing can be dangerous.
In the end, the Little Dutch Boy became a hero. One anticipates the future holds good news for Apple and the evolution of CSR, as well.
Apple and Little Dutch Boy Strategy, Cont’d.