Elena Bonfiglioli: the full interview

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Elena Bonfiglioli: the full interview

August 31, 2003

The full Briefing interview with Elena Bonfiglioli, who six months ago swapped her advocacy hat and convenor cloak at CSR Europe, for the garb of the day-to-day CSR practitioner. Briefing asked Microsoft’s new CSR manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa how she feels in her new clothes.

Last time I saw you, you were sitting on a panel alongside the Commission’s director general for enterprise, a representative from WWF and your counter-part at BT. Obviously working in partnership remains important to you in your current role.

Yes – even more so now. I’d say that one of the key lessons I brought from CSR Europe to my current job is the importance of participation, partnership, co-operation and exchange.

Adopting a partnership approach is particularly important when it comes to achieving a CSR strategy that’s applicable to all the different parts of the company worldwide. It’s vital to have a baseline that is commonly agreed, which requires an open mindset and a lot of effort to collaborate.

One of the things I did at the beginning of my new role, therefore, was to convene all our community affairs contacts from different subsidiaries in Europe, Middle East and Africa – over 50 people in total. We started to exchange best practices and began to understand what was happening in different countries.

From that initial experience, we’ve started to work as a “virtual team”. We have regular conference calls and of course internal communication tools, such as share points, an internal web site and internal newsletters. All this helps us stay abreast of what each of us is doing, and consequently allows us to work in one direction towards a common goal.

Clearly a partnership approach appears to be working for your immediate team, but do you find your other colleagues ready to participate?

By and large, yes. Our “CSR digital group” is a good example of this. It’s made up of people in different functions and from different business groups. We all get together over the phone twice a month with very concrete agenda points. It’s truly a small virtual organisation.

Take somebody in HR, take somebody that’s dealing with PR communications – they all bring their own perspective to this learning process. This is for me a clear example of collaboration across the company. Does this sound familiar?

Sure. What isn’t so familiar is the rhetoric of cross-functional partnership being translated into practice.

That’s true, but I really believe CSR occupies a unique position within companies. What fascinates me is the possibility of CSR as a brokering function.

What do you mean by CSR as a “brokering function”?

It’s clear to me that CSR practitioners can’t afford to be isolated in our ivory tower, just rolling out a CSR strategy by themselves. If CSR’s really going to take root, it’s got to be about the way the whole company does business.

So when I talk about “brokering”, I mean we – as CSR practitioners – have to mix and mingle, and stay very close to the business. We need to work with all different functions across the company if we want to be successful – if we want CSR to be genuinely integrated.

There’s another angle too. I think CSR managers need to act as “brokers” of expertise. We know that we are building a new practice, a new profession even. As more and more companies commit themselves to CSR, the onus is on us to educate colleagues about what it all means.

So how are you planning to use your “brokering position” to integrate CSR fully into the way Microsoft does business?

Well, this is complex question, and yet it really gets to the very heart of the CSR strategy that my colleagues and I have been working on over the last few months.

In some parts of the organisation, it’s already happening because there’s strong leadership from the top. In some other parts, curiously enough, the push is coming from the bottom.

Now we’re moving towards implementing our strategy, we’ll be looking to develop management mechanisms, such as training programmes, communication plans, employee involvement practices and the like.

We are not there yet, but I think the ground for change is very fertile. Perhaps we could talk again in six months time when hopefully I’ll be able to tell you more about how we’ve move from theory into practice?

Sure thing -Briefing readers will certainly be interested to hear how you get on. Thinking again about partnership, meanwhile. You’ve talked about building links within the company. What about fostering partnership with other companies in the sector?

It’s funny you should ask! Cross-industry partnership is something we at Microsoft are very keen to take forward. We’re currently working with a number of other corporate partners, for example, such Manpower and McDonald’s in our support of the European Year of Disability.

As it happens, we’re also talking with four other major companies in the information and communication technology [ICT] sector about working together on specific projects.

What we need, I think, is a convenor – someone who can help set a clear agenda for discussion. If we can agree some action areas that everybody is comfortable with and which represent a win-win on all sides, then I’m confident that the leading players would be happy to participate.

What two or three main issues would you like this industry group to address?

One issue would definitely be the digital divide. We’ve already invested a lot of time and energy on this issue, together with industry leader such as HP, Accenture, and DHL, as part of the World Economic Forum’s Global Digital Divide Taskforce. But it remains an area on which together the [ICT] sector has much more to contribute. So that’s one.

The second issue is definitely around the role that ICT can play as a driver of productivity and competitiveness. New technologies have huge potential to act as a booster of social capital, as a booster of intellectual capital and also as a major catalyst for work life balance.

And then you could also look at sectoral issues relating to our suppliers. As an industry, we’re only just beginning to think through the social and environmental impacts down the supply chain.

These are three major issues around which I would see major players identifying some concrete points for joint discussion and action. OK for starters?

Does this move towards concrete deliverables mark a change from the emphasis on exchange and advocacy during your days at CSR Europe?

I had a programmatic focus before, but now I have the ability to make things real in a faster way than I was able to do at CSR Europe.

I’d have to say as well that one thing I couldn’t fully capture when working for CSR Europe is the true complexity of these huge multinational organisations. Business today is such a complex living organism. It is not easy to design, shape, and implement a CSR programme which makes sense globally, which responds to the mission of the company and which also addresses the need for diversity, for variety and for localisation.

If your strategy does not make sense locally, then there’s no point. This was something we discussed at CSR Europe, and it was a challenge that companies kept coming back to us on time and time again. But I think you cannot capture this lesson until you have worked inside a company. You simply do not realise the complexity of organisational structures, nor can you grasp the willingness of people on the ground to deal with their local stakeholders.

What else have you learned from your initial six months at CSR Europe?

Just as Microsoft’s CSR strategy has to make sense to the company’s local stakeholders, so do I in my job. I need to remember that my first stakeholders are the 53 contacts I work with in Europe, Middle East and Africa. There is no question that if I don’t serve them well I’m not doing my job properly. I didn’t realise this when I was in CSR Europe. For me the expectations of the external stakeholders were more important. But now I see that you can only serve your external stakeholders once you’ve fully understood the needs of your internal stakeholders.

What piece of advice would you give your colleagues at CSR Europe?

It’s such a good organisation that I find it difficult to give any advice. But I would say one thing – go and engage, work in business.

I would even go further. As the field [of CSR] grows and professionalises, we also need to see business people and NGO representatives entering organisations like CSR Europe. There’s so much to be gained for all parties from mixing their people. Everybody brings with them different perspectives, different contacts, and different knowledge. It all comes back to my point about partnership and exchange again!

You worked closely with the Commission during you’re time at CSR Europe. I wondered if your attitude had changed with respect to the Commission’s approach to CSR?

I would say not. From a CSR practitioner’s perspective, I feel that what the Commission has done is a very positive start. Where it excels is as a convenor. Just take a look at what they are doing with the European Multi Stakeholder Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility. It’s bringing to life a fantastic experiment. It gives different parties the opportunity to come together, to learn, to exchange – and all thanks to the initiating role of the Commission. It represents an example of good practice that we do not have anywhere else in the world.

What I appreciate most from the Commission is that instead of rushing towards legislation, they have been looking at what is out there in all the different fields – not only in the business sector, but also among NGOs, social partners, different trade unions, and employees federations. It’s a model that many of my colleagues from around the world look at in a very favourable way.

One thing I would like to see, however, is more collaboration within and between the different Directorate Generals, as well as among the various Director Generals.

Finally, it sounds like you’re enjoying your new post?

Definitely! Microsoft’s a very exciting place to be right now.

I don’t know if you’re aware, but as a company we’ve recently taken a fresh look at our values and principles. Our new mission is all about helping business and people around the world to realise their full potential.

One way we’re definitely doing that is through our expertise in technology, which acts as an enabler for people to go forward. But at a social level worldwide, we are also helping people realise their potential through our commitment to CSR. What my job offers me is the opportunity to put these two things together – and that’s when you begin to see real change. It may sound a bit exaggerated, but I genuinely wouldn’t be able to tell you what more I could get from a job!

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 71 – September, 2003

An Italian citizen, Elena joined the Microsoft corporate affairs team in Brussels as director of CSR & community affairs in February. Prior to joining Microsoft, Elena was programmes director with the business-led group, CSR Europe, where she responsible for developing projects on CSR communications and reporting, diversity and SRI among others. While at CSR Europe, Elena also acted as project expert and reviewer for the European Commission (Directorate General Information Society) on projects related to CSR in the ICT sector. In her free time, Elena is involved in an international group of experts exploring cutting edge issues on management and spirituality, emotional intelligence and the benefits of corporate meditation. Elena holds a master’s degree in economics from the College of Europe and Modena University.

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