A Commentary: The Role of Research in Corporate Social Responsibility

By Christopher T. Coward

Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School

Since 2005, the Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington Information School has been working with Microsoft’s Community Affairs group to study the impact and effectiveness of the company’s Community Skills Technology Program (CTSP).

Microsoft’s commitment to independent inquiry is significant. The company has been serious about conducting independent research to inform its grant-making strategy, strengthen the effectiveness of its grant partners, and contribute to Microsoft’s role as a thought leader on the role of ICT skills training and employability.

Here are some of the key insights that TASCHA has observed in its work with Microsoft:

The importance of a “learning organization”. The work of CTSP is exemplary in its scale, partner selection, and ultimate impact. An important factor in this regard is Community Affairs’ openness as a “learning organization.” While our evaluations and research represent just one type of input, on numerous occasions Microsoft has acted on findings in the field and been willing to make some difficult choices.

The role of independent research. Microsoft and the TASCHA team worked together to develop annual research plans that struck a balance among several objectives: expanding knowledge about the role and impact of ICT training in society, providing guidance that Microsoft could use to improve CTSP, and creating public awareness about program results. In all cases it was essential that our role as independent researchers was clear, and for Community Affairs leaders in Redmond to back us when questions arose. We were most effective when we worked closely with Community Affairs leaders in Redmond. In Europe, for example, TASCHA, our European research partners and Microsoft Europe participated in a series of European Union meetings while we were conducting research on the challenges facing immigrant women in the labor market—a prominent issue in the region. Microsoft Europe understood and highlighted the independent nature of our research. Our research inspired action on the role of NGOs in providing technology access and training for immigrant communities in the EU. The issue is now squarely on the EU policy agenda, and TASCHA researchers, CTSP grant recipients, and Microsoft personnel are actively participating in policy conversations on this issue.

The role of evaluations and thematic research. In the first phase of our collaboration with Microsoft, we established metrics for monitoring grantee performance and conducted evaluations in many locations around the world. We then shifted our attention to specific research issues such as the effect of ICT skills training on wages and target populations, including disabled persons, immigrants, and at-risk youth. In our experience, evaluations produced clearer actionable findings; research generated greater opportunities to engage policy and other stakeholders and to influence a broader range of people through publications and conference presentations. Both approaches have value, and it is important that all parties are clear with regard to the goals and expectations of whichever approach is pursued.

The ripple effects of research. Microsoft-sponsored research has been significant in shaping an important area within the field of ICT and development. For example, as part of a large-scale, five-year global study on the impact of ICT in public access centers, a major dimension TASCHA is investigating is the role ICT plays with respect to employment and income generation. The Microsoft-funded work has directly shaped the design of the new study, and the results will provide further insights into the impact of organizations that provide ICT access and skills training.

Microsoft’s investment in independent evaluation and research—and its willingness to embrace a “learning approach”—have helped increase the effectiveness and impact of CTSP. Insights regarding the role of technology training and employability have benefited the company and—because the research has been entered in the public domain—other organizations working in the field.

More information about Microsoft-funded research at TASCHA: http://tasha.uw.edu/employability