CSR and the “myth of the poor SME”
When I was down in London last Wednesday night, I had a light, but delicious dinner in the bar of the rather swish hotel I was staying in and then, over an overpriced beer, took part in the #CSRChat Twitter event hosted by Susan McPherson of Fenton in New York (hence the hour). The keynote tweeter/victim was David Connor of Coethica (from this side of the pond) answering questions on CSR in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) – usually defined as independent companies with less than 250 employees.
It was a superb and fun session and I was very impressed with how David managed to keep multiple threads of conversation going simultaneously with so many participants and still make such insightful points. I picked up a lot on issues I don’t have much experience of like social enterprise and cause marketing – all to a live tinkling piano accompaniment (at my end only!).
However, I did go off on a bit of a mini rant in the middle of the session when I felt there was an implicit acceptance in the debate of what I call “the myth of the poor SME”. I first came across this in my last job which largely involved running European funded projects to support SMEs take up greener business practices. Inevitably I got sucked into a number of wider attempts to improve the uptake of such business support – all based on the assumption that the region’s SMEs were desperate for the help they were being offered but were stumbling about cluelessly trying to find it. I heard the phrase “the poor SME” bandied about by bureaucrats on a regular basis. If these people had actually spoken to a small/medium sized business owner they would have been a lot less patronising – those guys/gals are largely astute, informed and focussed, and perfectly capable of finding the help they need if and when they need it. They run their own business after all.
I hold the same opinion when it comes to SMEs and the corporate social responsibility/sustainability agenda. While SMEs face challenges such as low buying power, they hold a lot of advantages over their larger corporate cousins:
- They are compact – an environmental audit can be done in hours rather than weeks, a plan can almost literally be written on the back of the proverbial fag packet;
- They are agile – change can be implemented very quickly due to the size of the organisation, its smaller asset lists and short reporting chains;
- They are responsive – if the boss decides something needs doing, there is little argument – it gets done.
It is no coincidence that my favourite case studies in The Green Executive are those of the SMEs such as Muckle LLP, EAE Ltd and Boss Paints. These companies have shown how the innovation, focus and agility of the best SMEs has enabled them to tackle problems in really creative ways. These guys can show you how to do CSR/sustainability properly.
This is because the key success factor for any organisation is not access to finance or knowledge, but the attitude of the business leader. In an SME if the owner decides to aggressively pursue environmental and/or ethical goals, it will get done. If they’re not really interested, it won’t. It’s as simple as that.