Wednesday, April 7, 2010

From the Barrio to the Boardroom - Tomatoes, CSR, and Global Awareness

The importance of cultural global awareness in business today…

Because of the level of connectivity that we live with today, even the smallest decision that we make can ripple outward and have an unseen impact on people and the environment elsewhere in the world. Chaos theory calls this the butterfly effect or the observation that small actions (or changes in initial conditions) can influence a chain of events leading to large scale changes in outcomes.

Organizations today, whether they are local or global, have somewhere in their value chain a connection to some other place in the world. Regardless of what the business produces or provides in services – whether it be cell phones or fresh produce – it is likely that some element of the product came from a developing country. Therefore decisions made by the leaders, managers and employees within the organization have impact and the impact may not always be readily visible or for that matter positive.

The mental image I hold in my mind to remind myself of the need to think of the connection between my decisions and their impact on the world is, oddly enough, a tomato. Let me explain. A little over three years ago I began a relationship with some people in Mexico through which I was invited to help out in a migrant worker camp. The people living in the camp were hired to pick tomatoes in one of the nearby fields for a large multinational company. Prior to this experience I had not spent a lot of time thinking about where the tomatoes in my food came from or of the intricate network that linked me to my friends in Mexico. Now when I see a tomato I think of Yareli and her sisters and brothers who for a time lived in the migrant worker camp, and the impact of migrant work on her and her family. On the positive side there is the income that comes for the family from the work in the fields. However on the other side of that coin is the transitory nature of the work that causes families to move from camp to camp and decreases the odds that Yareli will have access to education or the opportunity to finish basic schooling. As well there is the increased risk of abuse for this young girl who stays in the camp while her mother goes out to the fields and of course the access to drugs and alcohol that become a normalized part of camp life.

I find that I can easily become overwhelmed by the social and environmental issues in our world today. However I do know that the cumulative effect of applying simple rules can change the design and outcomes of a system. System theory tells us that when the people in a system consistently apply simple rules to their actions, that the patterns and outcome of the system can be changed – that is why so much emphasis in organizations lately has been placed on developing and articulating values. So why is global awareness important in business today? It is simply because decision making in organizations, regardless of the size or niche of the organizations can change the life of Yareli for better or for worse. When the leader in an organization pauses to be curious about the broader impact of their decisions – for example what values do I look for in the company that we source our tomatoes from – the impact for individual, families, and communities can be significant? Global awareness leads to curiosity – and curiosity can lead to improved education access for Yareli because someone thought to ask about the impact of migratory agriculture on the education of the migrant worker’s children.

This post was written by Penny Lane, Managing Partner at The Acacia Group - responsible for International Relations and Community Development

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