Winning partnersJanuary 2014
A PhD or Doctorate is a research degree, designed to demonstrate research competence, mastery of a subject area and to develop original insight – pushing the boundaries of knowledge, just a little. Doctoral candidates need to be to be able carry out original research of a quality that can be published in peer reviewed journals, write for scholarly and popular audiences and manage complex ideas at a high level.
The key to success in doctoral research is not just intelligence; it involves creativity, networking skills, a passion for research, a passion for the chosen subject, and perseverance. In the field of CSR, it’s about as far away from being stuck in a lab with a white coat as you can imagine.
The International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICCSR) at Nottingham University believes that as society’s expectations of business responsibility increase, and as more companies claim to be responsible, it is vital that there is understanding of how and why the ethical and the social can, and should be, as core to business as the economic.
Its website states that its aim is to ‘lead the international development of responsible and sustainable corporate practice through the creation and dissemination of knowledge’. The ethos underpinning this is to ‘research and teach in an engaged and reflective manner’ with collaboration identified as a key element of its research philosophy.
University-industry collaboration is not a new phenomenon. Yet it is entering a new phase. Indeed, collaborative doctoral education is of growing importance throughout Europe. Collaborative PhDs help all participants to gain an awareness of the challenges facing organisations today: There is a general feeling of getting in touch with the problems of the “real world”, and specifically gaining knowledge of the corporate world’s current issues of interest, needs and practical know-how, which would otherwise be difficult to achieve.
Dr Wendy Chapple, Deputy Director of the ICCSR has supervised collaborative PhDs with FTSE, Business in the Community and Capital One. She outlines how ‘one criticism of Doctoral Research is its theoretical, abstract nature. In a Business School it is important that the research we carry out is relevant and useful to business and organisations, collaboration allows us to do this’.
Rieneke Slager was working as a local enterprise support consultant in Lincolnshire when she saw an advertisement for someone to work on a research project about the impact the FTSE4Good Index was having on its listed companies. Given her background as a graduate in international relations from the University of Groningen (where she had focused on CSR), and also having worked in microfinance, the project ticked all the right boxes. It turned out to be an advert for the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility’s first collaborative PhD, part funded by the ESRC and FTSE.
The FTSE4Good Index Series is designed to objectively measure the performance of companies that meet globally recognised environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. Transparent management and criteria make FTSE4Good a tool for consultants, asset owners, fund managers, investment banks, stock exchanges and brokers when assessing or creating responsible investment products. Slager’s PhD project was to examine what impact the index, launched in 2001, was having on its listed companies.
Slager began the PhD in 2008 and concluded in May 2012, though in the majority of cases funding is only required for three years. “Businesses need to remember that academic research is very different from regular research. It’s not a quick, in-and-out. It takes time and has to be grounded in academic theory,” says Slager.
The subject needs to be very specific to the business. ‘It needs to be something they really want to find out. They obviously set the parameters for the research but it is then carried out by an independent voice. An independent voice that takes the time to get to know the business very well.’
Slager feels that it is the bespoke nature, depth and also the independence of the research that makes it of high value to the individual business. ‘You do get to know the organisation really well but you don’t become a part of it’.
David Harris, ESG director at the FTSE Group and key contact for this research, agrees: “The research provided some key insights into our engagement process and its impact. The rigour and independence of academic study has given the research a great deal of credibility.”
Indeed the credibility of the research is such that FTSE promotes it on its website. And while the research does address the theoretical – a PhD needs to be published to be worthwhile to the career of the student – it also addresses the practical. In Slager’s case, FTSE serves as an illustration of her theory.
One of the findings of Slager’s research examined the issue of just how much time FTSE should invest in trying to enter dialogue with companies that are at risk of deletion due to the Index’s inclusion criteria. “FTSE isn’t interested in simply deleting companies. They wanted to know how long they should keep talking to companies for an effective engagement strategy. The research found that the conversation should last up to 15 months approximately.”
For the researcher, a collaborative PhD means that they get access to organizations and people from the start – access which otherwise can take lengthy negotiation. This usually results in really good quality data which can be used in future research. “It also helps academia step outside its ivory tower and engage with business,” says Slager. As part of the FTSE collaboration on the FTSE4Good Series, a member of the ESG team regularly contributed to ICCSR teaching so this collaboration also made an impact in the classroom.
Maggie Royston, Business Development and Centre Manager of the ICCSR has been responsible for arranging many of these collaborations and describes how “for several of these organisational contacts this has been their first exposure to higher level research, it has taken a leap of faith on their part - but they have appreciated the benefit that this genuine commitment to knowledge creation will bring in the long term”. An observation which reflects well on the calibre and commitment of many individuals working in CSR and sustainability practice.