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Most people have heard about biomimicry research and astonishing products based on spider silk, with six times the tensile strength of steel. But how about CSR performance based on ecosystem mimicry – with ROI at 20x to 30x!

There is a phenomenon in systems theory we call Edge Effect. Among other things, it refers to the potentially enormous boost in productivity that occurs where two different worlds meet. On a riverbank, for instance, in the area where soil and water meet, one can find as many as ten times the diversity of species: there might be sedges, reeds and mallow, otters and wading birds, newts, toads, kingfishers and dragonflies – all drawn to the place because of its having both elements present. Weeping willow trees thrive at the edges of waterways because they require huge quantities of water; as a result of this, they can produce as much as twenty times the biomass growth rates of their landlubber cousins like oak or walnut. Other riverside plants are massively pollinated and their seeds spread over great distances because of the increased numbers of birds and insects at the earth/water margin.

Why am I writing this modern-day ‘Tales of the Riverbank’? Because Edge Effect can boost performance equally well in CSR strategies. A warning, however: one has to learn how to manage edge effect for benefits – as this is also an area where some significant challenges can appear. The interface between siblings, business partners, genders, generations, nations, departments and market sectors are areas where enormously rich potential exists for collaboration, innovation and breakthrough  – or conflict and breakdown.

In both research and in practice, my colleagues and I have been working with the Edge Effect for some time and the results can be quite remarkable. In one example, we put a major construction company’s procurement team together with their suppliers to explore sustainability and community issues in a hospital construction project. In the past, the procurement team had always focused primarily on minimizing costs with each contractor. In this case, however, they discovered unexpected win/win situations. The roofing contractors, for example, would never have been able to double the insulation thickness, as the cost would have made them uncompetitive and they would have lost the contract. In this case they were able to do a deal with the plumbing contractors, who, as a result of the increased insulation, were now fitting much less heating and cooling equipment and everybody gained. Energy and cash were saved, awards were won, post-construction maintenance contracts became much more competitive.

Next came the exploration of the boundary between hospital and community. The following is a ‘dream outcomes’ sharing from a participant in one of our Sustainable Healthcare Innovation Programme (SHIP) groups:

“When it was noticed that the hospital site comprised around ten acres of buildings and many more acres of parking space, one bright spark suggested that we speak with the local bus company. With each outpatient issued with a free bus pass, vehicle journeys to and from the hospital could be cut by almost half. This not only means less need for car parking space, it also cuts local vehicle emissions, thereby reducing the incidence of child respiratory diseases needing treatment at the hospital. The number of road accidents and injuries is also reduced with yet more savings for the Accident and Emergency Department (an area of huge cost and system stretch), not to mention a great deal less suffering among local citizens. Finally, the acres of redundant car parking space were now free to become an organic food-growing facility within the grounds of the hospital, providing training and employment for local young offenders and fresh nutritious food for patients, which has been shown to shorten recovery times, thus freeing up beds for more patients.

The combined outcomes of these Edge Effect-based changes were worth millions of pounds in financial benefits alone. They also helped considerably in winning these companies numerous lucrative contracts and many other significant competitive advantages for years afterwards.

And all because the edges between company, community and contractors were explored at the beginning of the construction process!”

Many of these dreams have not yet come true – but we are working, right now, on some of them and results are brewing!

One of the most important sets of disciplines in exploring the benefits of Edge Effect in CSR programmes is systematic analysis, planning and measurement. We usually begin with a ‘Risks and Opportunities Mapping’ process which helps to pinpoint the most productive breakthrough areas. We also put in place appropriate metrics for measuring outputs and outcomes using both narrative and numbers.

Additional measured ROI boosts tend to occur in places such as Human Resources, Marketing, Investor Relations and Public Affairs. Benefits accruing in these areas are also mutually compounding. Thus, for instance, when a tripling of ROI occurs in three compounding areas, a simple 3x3x3 formula gives a 27x ROI figure. The synergies occur across internal, interdepartmental boundaries as often as between the organization and its external stakeholders. The key discipline is known in systems theory as Boundary Spanning.

So all you need to increase your ROI on CSR budgets by 20x to 30x is a set of Boundary Spanners in your toolkit!




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