15 December 2010

CSR and STEM graduates

Recently I was asked by Aman Singh of Vault's CSR blog to contribute a piece about CSR and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. A version of the piece was also posted on the Forbes blog which can be read here. As a STEM grad myself, I think that the topic needs more coverage so here's my piece that I originally wrote for Vault:

One of the biggest drawbacks in environmental management is the lack of holistic thinkers. Breaking up the environment into bite-sized bits and attacking problems associated with only those specific areas will create more problems than actually solve issues.

Science, technology, engineering and math graduates are the most crucially needed candidates for the field of corporate social responsibility and sustainability

Everything in the environment is linked to something else and it needs to be thought of as a whole system in order to arrive at solutions. By some quirk of brain mechanism, a certain kind of people are drawn to science, technology, engineering and math(STEM) fields and through natural inclination and academic training, graduates from these fields are taught to think holistically. These are the kind of people that need to be given opportunities in the environmental field.

STEM & CSR: An Obvious Career Gap

Environmental issues are no longer the custody of politicians, governments, economists and business leaders alone. Graduates trained in systems thinking need to be able to step forward to lend a hand in solving some of our most pressing problems. Of course, there is no one single solution. But to arrive at a combination of solutions, there needs to be many more people working on the problem. Right now, there is a dearth of talented systems thinkers that look at the environment and its problems holistically.

We see this even within company operations. CSR is a field that is not affiliated strictly to the right-brain or left-brain talent. It sits smack-bang in the middle requiring both creativity as well as logic in order to solve problems. Ironically, most STEM graduates already have the skills to solve logical problems creatively.

Connecting Molecular Biology with CSR

Speaking as a STEM graduate, my academic training in molecular biology has not only sharpened my ability to accurately assess the whole picture but also helped me make logical connections between parameters and arrive at solutions from a holistic lens—all of which are incredibly important skills for a CSR analyst.

CSR Is Unattractive to STEM graduates...

CSR is primarily thought of as a 'business' field and because of this misperception, it does not draw many people from STEM fields; however professionals with a background in marketing, HR, and PR migrate to it much more easily with their people skills. Taking away nothing from the importance of these expertise, corporate social responsibility desperately lacks people who are able to look beyond the business functioning.

Here's the thing: At its core, CSR tries to address how to increase the positive influence of business. Think of it as throwing a net: this figurative 'net' covers the full sphere of its activities from social influence, environmental impact, a business's many stakeholders, supply chains, consumers, etc. CSR then involves looking at everything under this net, studying their interactions and fine tuning each of these 'mini-systems' in such a way that the main-system benefits.

...But CSR is Really Just Another Word for Scientific Systems Thinking

Putting one of these optimally functioning micro-systems into the macro business world as well as extending and adapting the 'net' to serve every kind of business is a model of sustainable business. The close ties that CSR has with business can put off many STEM graduates, however, the function of CSR in reducing externalities and boosting brand value is simply business speak for scientific systems thinking!

The economic world is a sub-set of the ecological world just like the biological world. The base that the modern economic system is sitting on is getting shakier. We need people to fix the foundation before skyscrapers can be built. And these people can only come from science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Thank you Aman for the opportunity to present my piece on Vault and also on Forbes.

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