ISO 26000 in Higher Education Institutions – La Rochelle Business School

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La Rochelle Business School is currently in the initial phases of using the ISO 26000 directives as a central pivot to assist the school in its efforts to operate as a socially responsible institution. The school has extensive experience with the standard’s use in the business sector, and is in the process of implementing it in the school—raising awareness, developing consensus on what the standards mean, and identifying the issues the school will need to address. I recently spoke with Sarah Vaughan, associate Dean and Vincent Helfrich, Project ISO 26000 Coordinator, Institute for Sustainability through Innovation at La Rochelle Business School, about their experiences with the ISO 26000 standard.

What is ISO 26000?

ISO 26000 is an international standard on social responsibility which aims to provide guidance, rather than a set of requirements to which all types of organisations must conform. The standard was produced through extensive discussions with companies, NGOs and major trade associations, and covers:

  • principles of social responsibility
  • recognition of social responsibility and engaging with stakeholders
  • seven core subjects which in turn encompass some 43 issues

o   organisational governance

o   human rights

o   labour practices

o   fair operating practices

o   consumer issues

o   community involvement and development

o   integrating social responsibility within an organisation

It provides a strategic approach to social responsibility and is particularly helpful for internal and external analyses and providing starting points for implementing sustainability strategies (more information:

How is La Rochelle using these standards? What are the benefits to the school?

The school has decided to institutionalise its commitment to CSR by structuring and aligning its overall social responsibility process with the ISO 26000 directives and the CGE/CPU framework—the French Universities standard.

The ISO 26000 framework is a universal guideline that we as a school are familiar with: we were actively involved in the national steering committee and workgroups that developed the standard, and we have acquired a practical approach to its implementation in the business world via the school’s industry funded research chair in CSR & ISO 26000. Using the ISO 26000 standard is a logical extension of the school’s commitment to social responsibility and sustainability, initiated at the end of the 90s.

What is some of the work coming from the Research Chair in CSR & ISO 26000? 

The CSR & ISO 26000 Research Chair crystallises our expertise in sustainability and social responsibility (SR) built up over the years. We were among the first to distil an understanding of SR and to provide guidance for corporations to translate SR principles, using ISO 26000, into effective actions for implementation. Our expertise of working with companies in developing practical strategies for implementing the standard, has enabled us to strengthen and develop our academic research base (contributing new insights), has had research implications for practice, and has informed our teaching (case study development and problem or issues-based consultancy projects).

The Fleury Michon research project is a perfect illustration of the work we are doing. Since 12th April 2010, the school has assisted this major French agro-food company in its process of integrating corporate social responsibility practices, in compliance with ISO 26000 guidelines. Collaboration with the company’s senior management has given researchers privileged access to the company in order to test the relevance of the ISO 26000 standard, by using a research-intervention approach. For the company, the self-assessment phase focused on evaluating actions in each of the 40 areas in the seven core subjects identified by ISO 26000.

The company published its CSR gap analysis and self-assessment report, tracking results on its CSR efforts, and then developed a strategy, identifying and highlighting areas for improvement, together with drawing up detailed action plans. Consultancy projects in the MBA programme have enabled students to become involved in the reporting process by generating reports on topics such as SR best practices in the Agro-Food Industries, Ethical Charters, and identifying the sector’s SR performance indicators that could be used by practicing managers.

What have been some of the challenges in implementing ISO 26000 at La Rochelle? Successes? 

The school’s ISO 26000 strategy is now at the second level of self-assessment. Implementation is not a simple process: firstly it requires creating a deliberative process to maximise stakeholder engagement. Secondly, it is essential to strike a balance between efficiency and representativeness of the project working group. Lastly, the working group must communicate throughout the organisation and update regularly on progress and achievements. SR encompasses a broad range of sometimes complex issues and not all members of the school’s organisation are well-versed in them.

As a consequence the internalisation and appropriation of the process—understanding and utilising the standard—is in general a lengthy one, but one which has enabled the school to progress on reaching consensus, a “thought way” as to the scope and purpose of social responsibility and its relevance to each member of the school in their activity. It has been an appropriate approach to broaden SR engagement. As for many organisations, the school is already taking some measures or is engaged in many activities to meet its social responsibility, but these are often the result of individual initiatives or informal processes, without a conscious SR strategy. It is a great participative learning process within the school to raise awareness of its accomplishments and share the different initiatives—this is probably the most productive part of the project lifecycle so far.

What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?

Each situation is unique but first and foremost ISO 26000 is a collective project that requires commitment from top management and must be co-built with all the members of the school. The focus is on structuring and improving SR policy—it is not a trajectory towards a certification seal (conformity tests and compliance statement, etc.), as indeed no certification exists. From this perspective ISO 26000 is an interesting practical and incremental process: it is merely an evaluation of how mature the school is in meeting its social responsibility, and putting its performance into perspective.

What’s next?

The next step for the school will be to launch our SR action plan based on the priority areas we have identified as a result of the self-assessment phase, and to pursue our stakeholder engagement process. We will also continue to focus on procedures and practices within the corporate world (in the context of the CSR & ISO 26000 research chair) and to pursue our engagement with the standards bodies, as experts but also end-users, to contribute to developments of current and future regulations and guidelines.



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