Cobblers and their Lasts – #CSR and corporate mission

Cross-posted from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce



Cobblers and Their Lasts: Why Every Company Needs to Look Inward Before it Turns Outside

February 7, 2013

The old saying that the cobbler should stick to his last – his mold – suggests that we ought not venture far from things we work with day by day. That may have been true at one point, but it is no longer. And yet cobblers need to know their lasts, and take responsibility for them. Perhaps before they do anything else.

You have probably never heard of Giesecke and Devrient (G. and D.), a privately-held German company founded in the middle of the 19th century. G. and D. is chiefly a printer. But not just any printer. It’s a secure printer. They print banknotes. In a typical year, they print the banknotes for 80 nations and manufacture the paper for 40 more, over half the member states of the United Nations. Perhaps the next Oceans 11 remake will hit one of their warehouses. The Bourne Banknotes would track global financial conspiracy back to Bismarck. 

A year ago, I was asked to consult, as part of a group, for a new venture emerging from this high-tech banknote machine. While G. and D. has ongoing engagement in several more traditional CSR areas, the new project was to focus on core questions in the domain of its business technology, such as identity and the human-machine interface. It appealed to me as I was just winding down a three-year project on biometrics, identity, security and ethics, in which our Washington, DC think tank C-PET served as U.S. partner in a global effort and last May hosted a three-day event in which representatives of 20 nations, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House participated.

While in Berlin recently, I had the opportunity to listen in on one of the two expert groups organized around G. and D.’s new venture: famed cyborg Neil Harbisson sat around the table with G. and D. executives, philosophers, and tech gurus and on screen we had the legal adviser to the Spanish parliament and an outspoken American futurist. I’m not sure that in the course of the coming months the group will be able to solve all of the potential problems this venture faces. But it will better define what they are, and in the context of a company not only depending on (and innovating within) core emerging technologies, but located in the nation most aware at a formal, policy level of the obstacles of the tech/human interface, its conclusions will be significant. As I have said before, it’s all about the questions. And yet – the session was not all somber reflection. G. and D. had also commissioned its artists to let loose their imaginations in a whimsical exhibition of possible bank bill designs and samples were exhibited round the conference room. My favorite was the series based on Alice in Wonderland. (Which I do not intend as commentary on current U.S. or European economic policy initiatives!)

CSR in the 21st century can take many paths. Much of the field is still old-fashioned philanthropy in response to crises, which may or may not follow the business model of the giver – and is welcome and wonderful either way. Some is reaching out to Michael Porter’s prophetic vision of “shared value,” in which there is full integration with the business model and bottom line. Then there are points and initiatives in between, like G. and D.’s recent effort, and I believe there should be a lot more like it.

Whether or not you believe Porter’s hypothesis, if you are serious about CSR, branding, long-term social connectedness, your company must examine the core issues of its business and figure out how they interface with society’s emerging issues. They may relate to technology, and increasingly they are likely so to do. But whether or not that specific trend is the case, it will only serve your long-term business goals as well as the social good to develop ideas, strategies, and projects that directly connect with the broader cultural trends — especially at its pressure-points, where there is controversy and need.  G. and D. has begun to do that with this fascinating new venture, and it will only benefit them and the rest of us along with them. I am privileged to be associated with it.

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