Thursday 14 January 2016

2015 CSEAR Case Study Competition Award

By guest blogger Christian Herzig, University of Kassel

Suzana Grubnic, Jean-Pascal Gond
and Christian Herzig at the 27th
CSEAR at Royal Holloway
(not on the photo: Jeremy Moon)
My colleagues Dr Suzana Grubnic, University of Loughborough, Professor Jean-Pascal Gond, Cass Business School, and Professor Jeremy Moon, Copenhagen Business School, and I are very grateful to have been awarded the 2015 CSEAR Case Study Competition award. We very much appreciated the invitation to present our teaching case study “A New Era – Moving from Climate Action to a Broader Sustainability Agenda: The Case of Commercial Group” at the 27th International Congress on Social and Environmental Accounting Research, held at Royal Holloway in late August 2015 and to publish the case (including a teaching note) in the latest issue of the Social and Environmental Accountability Journal. The case, we feel, can support lectures dedicated to CSR, sustainability or sustainable development in numerous types of accounting and management modules at different levels.

I still remember when Simon Graham, Environmental Strategist at Commercial Group, delivered his first talk as a guest speaker in my module on ‘Sustainability Accounting and Reporting’ at Nottingham University Business School more than five years ago. Students enjoyed his informative and thought-provoking lecture, his passion for the environment and positive attitude towards the impact business can make towards sustainable development. It was the beginning of a long-term relationship in terms of both welcoming him as a regular guest speaker at Nottingham and deepening our collaboration through case study research initially funded by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (some findings from this research have also been published in our CIMA study ‘Management Control for Sustainability Strategy’).

It was Simon and the sister of a sister-brother team (who together with an old school friend established the business in 1991) who set up the measurement systems at Commercial Group and sought to connect with staff members in order to empower them to make a difference. The success of Commercial Group’s journey towards a more socially responsible business since then has been remarkable and has been recognised in the form of awards including Business in the Community Big Tick 2012, Guardian Sustainable Business Award 2013, and various other prestigious awards. Commercial Group will also celebrate the tenth anniversary of its annual CSR Day next year, which serves to reach out to both customers and suppliers and engender further changes.

What makes Commercial Group an interesting case is the gradual extension of its CSR agenda. Commercial Group has always understood itself as a “caring” company, built strongly upon family principles and paying attention to valuing staff as individuals, then inculcating an impressive green agenda (e.g. achieving carbon neutrality and zero waste status) and most recently concentrating on the creation of corporate sustainable value with investment in a new social agenda four times the financial resource originally put into the environmental cause. An interesting lens through which the case can be looked at in class is the management of tensions, trade-offs and potential contradictions relating to the co-existence of the company’s multiple (economic, social and environmental) sustainability objectives. Managing tensions in corporate sustainability has become an increasingly popular topic in the management literature (see for example Hahn et al.’s recent work published in AMR or JBE). However, what role we should attribute to calculative and control practices for managing tensions appears to be a largely under-researched question. At least for debate in class, we provide some suggestions in our teaching note on how this can be reflected on and discussed together with management and accounting students.

The case, we feel, is also interesting because teaching cases often revolve around ir/responsible practices of large, usually globally operating companies which do (or do not) respond to external expectations of powerful stakeholders such as consumers, NGOs or investors. In contrast, our case is about a medium-sized business services company, independently owned, which is not up there on the high street or in the world of consumer orientated businesses. It is thus neither driven by media nor is it massively on the radar of non-governmental organisations. Instead, a mixture of moral obligations, duty of care for staff, operational efficiency and market positioning in the B2B world has driven Commercial Group’s aspirations to become a leading CSR company in its sector. The case study describes how the company has drawn upon management by measurement and management by inspiration to pursue and implement its sustainability objectives and strategy.

A related topic for discussion with students emerges from the challenges associated with the continuous growth of the organization, the difficulty of maintaining its ‘sustainability competitive advantage’ with the consolidation of its competitors, and the complexity of retaining a relationship with all workers which has largely been based upon informal and personal networks. Whilst management, on the one hand, would like to maintain the inspirational drive that was initially behind the sustainability strategy, it has on the other hand also started to debate the option of formalising and integrating measurement systems to a greater extent in the future. Initiatives that could help maintain both elements are outlined in the case and can be discussed further in class.

We genuinely hope that the case will prove helpful for others as a vehicle to provide students with practical insights into and knowledge about “accounting and control for sustainability”.

We would be grateful to receive your feedback on the case and to what extent it might have helped you in your own teaching to raise critical awareness, for example, of the role and use of management conceptions such as management by measurement and by inspiration to implement sustainability strategies.

Case Report:

Grubnic, S., Herzig, C., Gond, J-P. & Moon, J. 2015) A New Era – Extending Environmental Impact to a Broader Sustainability Agenda: The Case of Commercial Group. Social and Environmental Accountability Journal, 35(3): 176-193.

Links to Other Resources:

Arjaliès, D.-L. & Mundy, J. 2013. The use of management control systems to manage CSR strategy: a levers of control perspective. Management Accounting Research, 24(4): 284-300.

Epstein, M.J., Buhovac, A.R. & Yuthas, K. 2015. Managing social, environmental and financial performance simultaneously. Long Range Planning, 48(1): 35-45.

Gond, J-P., Grubnic, S., Herzig, C. & Moon, J. 2012. Configuring management control systems: theorizing the integration of strategy and sustainability. Management Accounting Research, 23(3): 205-223.

Hahn, T., Preuss, L., Pinkse, J. & Figge, F. 2015. Tensions in Corporate Sustainability: Towards an Integrative Framework. Journal of Business Ethics, 127(2), 297-316.

Hahn, T., Preuss, L., Pinkse, J. & Figge, F. 2014. Cognitive Frames in Corporate Sustainability: Managerial Sensemaking with Paradoxical and Business Case Frames. Academy of Management Review, 39(4): 473-487.

Moon, J., Gond, J.-P., Grubnic, S. & Herzig, C. 2011. Management control for sustainability strategy’, in Research Executive Summary Series 7(12), Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. [online]

Unerman, J. & Chapman, C.S. 2014. Academic Contributions to Accounting for Sustainable Development. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 39(6): 385-394.


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