Prof. Nick Tolhurst (Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility, Steinbeis University Berlin; Germany)

31.08.2009 - Interview conducted by Mailin Obermueller & Hughie Coogan

Nick Tolhurst received a Master's Degree from Osnabrück University in both Cultural Studies and European Studies, specialising in Economics. He has previously worked for the British Foreign Ministry, advising companies operating in Germany and England, as well as for the European Commission, where he helped to prepare for the introduction of the Euro.

On July 29th, Mr. Tolhurst moderated a panel discussion on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) during the ICD’s International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy. After the panel discussion, Mr. Tolhurst granted the following interview, in which he spoke about how he came to work for the ICCA, both the theory and the practice of Corporate Social Responsibility, as well as the future of international business.

How did your experiences in the European Commission and British Foreign Office contribute to your choice to work with the ICCA?

I have to start further back than that. During my university studies, I attended a very strange but interesting course that was part Business Studies and part Cultural Studies. After my degree, I was taken on by the European Commission during the time when the Euro was being introduced. While there, I discovered that every culture has a different relationship towards money. A Greek man, for example—and I know this is a cliché—he wants to have a large pile of individual notes to pick up at the end of the day. He doesn’t want to have a single 100 Euro bill in his pocket. On the other hand, British people didn’t even find the discussion about the Euro interesting, because they use credit cards most of the time. There’s also a relationship between culture and marketing products.  In Germany, for example, everything is done through commissions. So I realised that if you don’t know how to deal with a culture you can’t do business well. This was one of the factors that brought me to the ICCA, where I am able to combine my interest in business and culture.

During the panel discussion earlier, you mentioned how you thought CSR would be the next major development in the business world. What in particular about modern society leads you to make this prediction?

It’s a logical shift. I don’t even think it has to do with CSR itself.  I think that with the Internet, with decreasing transportation costs, with more widespread education, and with a globalised economy, it gets harder and harder to differentiate between products. And thus, it has also become more difficult to differentiate yourself from the rest of the market. It used to be the case that a company could discover a product and then spend years developing, producing and selling it. Now you can copy this product straightaway and transport it all over the world. In order for a company to differentiate itself then, it will come down to determining whether the company produces products in a good way; in other words, in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. These issues didn’t exist years ago, and that, I would say, is the big change. 

What do you think are the difficulties with putting theory into practice?

We often find that there are methods that work in practice, which academics don’t really know about. This is because they don’t really consider things that shouldn’t work in theory. Currently at the ICCA, we’re bringing in a new group to interview CSR managers to tell us—without the jargon and footnotes—what works and what doesn’t, what we should try to avoid, and about the challenges we may face. That’s what we need to know at the moment. Obviously, we need to treat every subject as academic. But the problem is that the discussion could get so trapped in academia that it crowds out the voices of the people who are actually doing the job.

Thank you for your time.