Professional Associations as Communities of Practice: Exploring the Boundaries of Ethics and Compliance and Corporate Social Responsibility

Published date01 September 2017
Date01 September 2017
AuthorAngeli Weller
Professional Associations as
Communities of Practice:
Exploring the Boundaries of
Ethics and Compliance and
Corporate Social
For more than a decade, scholars and practitioners have
noted the disconnection between E&C and CSR practices
in US corporations and called for their alignment. There
is scant literature on why this lack of alignment persists.
This article applies communities of practice theory to illu-
minate the separate learning trajectories that the E&C
and CSR fields in the US have taken over the past twenty
five years, anchored by their respective professional asso-
ciations. This article provides an important perspective on
the role that n, boundaries, ethics and compliance, corpo-
rate social responsibility communities of practice play in
reifying the knowledge and competencies within E&C and
CSR, and the boundaries to collaboration that exist
between their managers and practices. It also calls
Angeli Weller is a strategist and researcher through Weller Worldwide and co-director of the
Blue Sky Institute at Boise State University. She has a PhD from Copenhagen Business School
and an MBA from Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. E-mail: angeli@
C2017 W. Michael Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University. Published by
Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington
Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.
Business and Society Review 122:3 359–392
attention to the fact that alignment is not the only alter-
nate trajectory that these practices and their communi-
ties may take in the future, and five distinct evolutionary
paths are explored.
In comparing 2014’s “Most Ethical Companies” published by
Ethisphere Magazine
to the “Best Corporate Citizens” pub-
lished by Corporate Responsibility Magazine,
only 20% of
companies appear on both rankings. The survey methodologies
reveal that companies are judged on a wide range of responsible
business practices, with the “ethical” companies competing on
ethics and compliance, governance and reputation efforts, and the
“corporate citizens” being judged on social responsibility issues
including environment, human rights, and economic development.
Yet a study by the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University
found that in companies with both Ethics and Compliance (E&C)
and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs, their manag-
ers rarely communicate or collaborate.
The conceptual relationship between business ethics and CSR is
one that scholars have debated for many years, and yet most pro-
pose some relationship between them. For example, Carroll’s pyra-
mid folds business ethics and corporate social responsibility
together into the ethics tier,
though it could be argued that in
practice, E&C also includes the legal tier, and CSR also includes
the philanthropy tier. Mason and Simmons explain ethical busi-
ness practices as the “internal manifestation of CSR.”
In short, it
is reasonable to conclude that the debate surrounding the con-
cepts of business ethics and CSR and their relationship has not
been clearly resolved in the literature, but that most scholars
understand them to be related in some way.
There is also a debate about whether E&C practices embrace the
full scope of the concept of business ethics, but this discussion is
left for another article. Instead, Schwartz and Carroll’s wide and
narrow definitions of business ethics and CSR helps to express the
range of meaning they embody and rejects the idea of a singular
Business ethics can be as narrowly defined as legal
compliance, placing it squarely and solely in Carroll’s legal tier in
the pyramid, or more widely defined to also include values and
integrity. CSR, conversely, can be singularly defined as the idea of
do no harm, or more broadly defined as the idea of having a
positive impact on both business and society. This approach helps
to effectively communicate the wide range of meaning that may be
assigned to E&C and CSR practices.
Seeing these conceptual and practical ties, some scholars and
practitioners have called for greater alignment between E&C and
CSR practices. Painter-Morland critiques the separation of busi-
ness and ethical interests writ large, suggesting that when busi-
ness decisions and stakeholder relationships are driven from a set
of core values, integrity of actions and practices are more likely to
follow. As such, she explicitly calls for alignment in E&C and CSR
practices as part of a move toward greater organizational congru-
Petry adds to this argument, suggesting that the separation
of E&C and CSR practices results in “blind spots...redundancy,
confusion, mixed messages and waste.”
Rowe called for E&C officers to find better alignment with the
CSR counterparts suggesting that, “When a company’s manage-
ment starts to look beyond compliance, inevitably they develop an
awareness of issues that bring them in touch with CSR. Whether
they choose to address them is another matter.”
His argument is
that the themes of risk, (stakeholder) relationships and reputation
are the ties that link E&C and CSR. Additionally, Rowe offers four
potential impacts that could result from alignment, including a
more holistic view of a company’s approach to ethics and social
responsibility, better board and senior management oversight and
leadership on key issues, improved risk management and opportu-
nity identification, and more efficient stewardship of company
resources. And yet, little has changed within companies over the
past 10 years since his call was issued. Rowe suggests that both
the history of the practices as well as resistance from managers to
yield responsibility and power may be contributing to a lack of
alignment between them, but these possibilities are not explored in
In fact, the barriers to alignment have not yet been comprehen-
sively examined in the business and society literature. This article
extends current discussions in the field by describing some of the
barriers that may exist between E&C and CSR managers and prac-
tices. Specifically, it applies a theoretical lens from the organiza-
tional learning literature, called communities of practice, to the
fields surrounding E&C and CSR in the United States. Leveraging
the theory’s model of community evolution, it suggests the fields

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