Technology firms leverage their core expertise for CSR activities


Bengaluru: The best way of meeting corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals is by playing to your strengths. Multibillion-dollar technology enterprises such as IBM India, Cisco India, Accenture Ltd, Microsoft India, SAP Labs India and Dell India are among those to have realized this. They tap their technical expertise—from enterprise software to cloud-based solutions—to solve social problems.

Most of these companies have directed their solutions towards education and skilling as they find that this is where their technological expertise can have the greatest impact. Besides, education and skills also directly impact their knowledge-based industry, which can in turn help address the problem of talent shortage in the long run.

The CSR Rules 2014 mandate that companies with a net worth of Rs.500 crore or revenue of Rs.1,000 crore or net profit ofRs.5 crore should spend 2% of their average profit in the past three years on social development-related activities. But since most of these multinational companies (MNCs) are not listed in India, they are not required to reveal their CSR spends.

Large MNCs’ CSR expenditure, though, can be estimated to be between Rs.8 crore and Rs.10 crore a year each, said Rumi Mallick, vice-president at Nasscom Foundation, which counts such companies as members.

“These companies are not new to the concept of CSR and have been involved in a lot of corporate giving, volunteering projects and pro bono. Currently, they are estimated to have spent close to 70% of the mandated spend by the government,” she said, adding that many of the firms do not attempt to fully monetize volunteering as CSR.

Equipment maker Cisco, hardware maker Dell and technology consulting company Accenture are all involved in creating specialized content to supplement education of young adults and help them become more employable. They all use more or less the same model of the cloud as a repository of content, which can be accessed across electronic devices by schools or skilling centres.

“Eighty per cent of engineering undergraduates are unemployable because they lack the necessary skills,” said Murugan Vasudevan, head-social innovation group for Cisco India. The problem lies in the fact that the curriculum used by most educational institutions is at least 25 years old, he added.

To help students gain relevant skills, Cisco, since 1999, runs a network academy programme, which offers IT/programming and networking courses in addition to career-building programmes, both at an institutional level and to individuals. The course content for this is developed and updated by Cisco staffers.

Cisco has 176 such networking academies in partnership with higher educational institution such as Amity, vocational schools and non-profits such as Dr. Reddy’s Foundation across 25 states and Union territories.

So far, Cisco has trained 110,000 students and aims to take this to 250,000 skilled students by 2020, as part of the country digitization acceleration programme for which the company will be spending $100 million over the next two years in India, said Vasudevan. Globally, Cisco spent $286 million on CSR activities in 2015.

Cisco now aims to work in partnership with state governments on skilling projects. It has already signed agreements with Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Rajasthan to provide a web-based curriculum and other teaching resources developed by the company to educational institutions.

While Cisco focuses on college students, Dell has been working with schoolchildren since 2009. It has set up 264 Dell Connected Classrooms—computer centres in government schools to train more than 90,000 students (Classes VI-X) in digital literacy. These centres are cloud-based virtual learning classrooms equipped with laptops, tablets, interactive boards, projectors and a Wi-Fi connection.

Dell’s contribution to the programme constituted about 25% of its CSR spend in FY16, said Bhasker Sharma, manager at Dell Giving and CSR Programs. Globally, Dell spent close to $32.2 million on CSR, according to a 2015 company report.

Some companies are also using their technologies to help non-profits.

Accenture has teamed up with Dr. Reddy’s Foundation, the non-profit arm of the eponymous pharmaceutical company, to skill youth. It created an e-learning solution for retail, IT/BPO, hospitality and construction skills in addition to basic English-language proficiency. This is aimed at skilling youth in the age group of 16-20, especially school dropouts.

The company developed the technology platform and worked with experts to create the content.

“We made a blended curriculum and made it available both online and offline. We did this so that it can reduce the reliance on a trainer,” said Kshitija Krishnaswamy, director of Corporate Citizenship, Accenture’s CSR wing.

Accenture, which has been doing CSR for more than 10 years and skilled over 200,000 youths in the past five years, met the 2% spending mandate in FY15, Krishnaswamy said, but would not share details.

It spent more than $220 million on CSR globally between 2011 and 2014, said its 2014 Corporate Citizenship Report.

Accenture has also set up an online portal to help Dr. Reddy’s Foundation track registrations across its 160 centres, measure performance, and gather insight into the funds needed for every centre.

“If we went out to create a data management platform, it would have cost us about Rs.70 lakh,” said Pranav Choudhary, director, operations at Dr. Reddy’s Foundation. “Tech companies don’t limit themselves to grants, but also look at how to make us more efficient through their pro bono work. This makes it a win-win for us,” he added.

While most tech companies focus their competencies around employability and skilling, IBM has taken a different route. The company helps non-profits and governments deploy technology during disasters as part of its CSR activities.

“The scales of disasters are overwhelming. Every disaster is a huge information challenge. Also, it is a unique opportunity to add value,” said Mamtha Sharma, head of CSR, India and South Asia, at IBM.

While IBM has been doing this around the world since the early 1990s, in India, it began with the earthquake in Bhuj, Gujarat, in 2001, where it started tracking relief material logistics and consolidated that data for efficient deployment of efforts.

Since then, the company has been part of relief and rescue efforts in disasters such as the 2004 tsunami, the 2013 floods in Bihar and Uttarakhand and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

In the Uttarakhand floods, when over 5,700 people died, one of the big challenges was collating a missing persons report. There were numerous phone calls, emails and posts on the Internet of missing people. IBM collated all the missing reports, ran algorithms and, from over 25,000 names, reduced it to about 10,000.

“We used products like IBM Entity Analytics that has the capability to sift through Indian names and addresses,” said Sunil Raghavan, who is part of the disaster response team at IBM.

This helped the state government issue death certificates and ensure that the right people were compensated. Raghavan added that disaster relief is not about using the latest technologies but deploying technologies that are relevant and can be widely used. IBM spent close to $210 million globally on CSR in 2014.

Most of the CSR initiatives leverage the way tech companies do business and experts say it is the right way to do it.

“All over the world, this is what truly drives CSR even without the law mandating it,” said Noshir Dadrawala, chief executive officer of the Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy, a consultancy for non-profits.

Mallick of Nasscom believes the investment by many tech MNCs in institutional capacity-building of non-profits is an indication of an evolved sense of CSR. This puts them ahead of some home-grown IT companies that have just started out on their CSR journey. “Barring the very large Indian tech firms, most have been choosing more predictable methods of CSR and not pushing the boundaries yet.”