Responsible business – crafting South Africa’s responsibility journey through social innovation

The new decade has in so many ways forced us to reconsider the way we live, work, produce, and trade. Businesses must be equipped to not only tackle today’s global problems – especially the current health crisis – but also build greater positive interdependence between the world’s organisations and the complex systems in which they operate. This starts by reflecting on how we lead and how we can hold organisational and political leaders to a higher standard.

At Accenture, we believe that the next legacy is about Responsible Business (RB) in action. Leaders today have to face new responsibilities. They must deliver organisational performance, embrace continuous innovation to unlock long-term value, the most challenging of all, build and earn stakeholders’ trust. These stakeholders include consumers, employees, investors, business partners, policymakers, and representatives of civil society. These important stakeholders are exponentially vocal in demanding a more equitable and sustainable wave of growth, and the generations Y and Z are at the front line of this movement. 

Defining the Responsible Business framework

Our research aimed to define a new model of responsible leadership in the 2020s – one that delivers sustainable and equitable growth for all. With that objective, we extended our analysis to listen to the views of more than 20,000 people around the world. As outlined in our Next Generation Growth model, living a Responsible Business is evident both in how we serve our clients and how we lead as a company. The latest comprehensive Accenture report[1] on ‘Seeking New Leadership’ highlights that the social, economic, and environmental challenges of the 2020s require new approaches to leadership and responsibility. Furthermore, an ability to master Mission & Purpose, Technology & Innovation, and Stakeholder Inclusion must become second nature. In terms of growth, companies that combine high levels of innovation and sustainability and trust have been shown to outperform their peers.

South Africa is quite far along in its RB journey, and the Growth Markets leadership team is showcasing us as a champion of the initiative and a blueprint for others to follow. Given this spotlight to be a global pioneer and for potential investment, we are leveraging this opportunity to its full capacity in unlocking sustainable value for our business, clients, and country. As one of our business leaders rightly put it, “Responsible business is not another KPI to us: it is simply how we do business, it is how we think, how we act and how we bring about the impact to our clients.”

‘Responsibility’ can be defined across various stakeholders and themes. We collated a comprehensive responsibility framework to look at our current portfolio and assess our impact across six stakeholder groups. By conducting an audit of all on-going initiatives Accenture Africa now has the opportunity to bring RB to the very core of our business model and impact with clients. Most of the responsibility initiatives in South Africa are Corporate Citizenship driven, lack business involvement, and are fragmented across divisions and teams. To achieve the RB vision, we need to include responsibility in the way we operate. There is also a lack of communication and visibility on these initiatives which leads to investment redundancy. Thus, we need to ask ourselves: are we investing in the most streamlined and efficient way possible?

We scanned all the current impact initiatives in South Africa across the business, people, and process lenses. All business unit leaders shared their perspective on what ‘Responsibility’ means for their business and shared certain gaps and opportunities to unlock further value. We found that there is scope to better communicate with our stakeholders and leaders on our efforts toward being a responsible business and have a common vision towards responsibility, streamlining our operations, and embracing best practices in areas that we identify as priorities.

Challenges in the South African context

The South African local context offers five key challenges for us to address in our RB strategy with unemployment, future skills shortages, and government mismanagement being the most prevalent challenges, and the economic inequality as well as environmental degradation adding to the list. The current unemployment rate sits at an alarming 29%, with youth unemployment at 56% which is the third-highest in the world. While SA spends one of the highest GDP per capita amounts on education, the quality of public education is still very poor, leaving most South African youth ill-prepared for further study and employment. SA ranked 114 out of 137 countries for education quality.

Also, South Africa’s workforce of the future is one where automation may replace manual and repetitive work and therefore workers. Over 30% of South African jobs are threatened by total automation. The industries impacted strongly will be retail, e-commerce, and financial services. The workforce of the future will be one requiring more specialised skills. This is why we place critical emphasis on improving education quality, up-skilling, and re-skilling the existing workforce.

State capture and corruption pose the third biggest challenge. There were 166 fraud and corruption cases between 2010 and 2016 related to procurement by state institutions and SOEs, ranging from R70 000 to R2.1 billion that are still affecting the economy today. Several private sector companies have been implicated in state capture, corruption, and fraud and the country’s economy has been severely jeopardised by state capture.

Being responsible in the new is weighted on five pillars:

  1. Responsibly South African: Tailoring our solutions to the South African market’s needs, using our RiTN strategy to directly address the biggest challenges that South Africa faces.
  2. Responsible Leaders: Leading by example and ‘going above and beyond’ in driving responsible business practice. Being proactive in driving impact above and beyond the regulatory checkboxes and being conscious in the business opportunities and clients we take on.
  3. Responsibly Human: Investing in people to be ready for the changes in the New. Positioning our employees to better respond to market demand through continuous upskilling. Enabling South Africa to play in industries that make us more globally competitive and contributing to positive GDP growth.
  4. Responsibly Eco-Conscious: Being Custodians of our Environment for future generations. Being leaders in conducting business in a way where Economy and Ecology go hand in hand and being custodians for future generations. Applying best practice, cutting-edge technology and solutions to drive impact internally and for our clients
  5. Responsibility in Action: Inspiring a shift in Thinking and Doing with clients and Engaging in Collective Impact. Using our ‘Responsible DNA’ to inspire a shift in thinking with our clients and help them drive impact beyond compliance. Proactively pursuing partnerships with clients to solve the business challenges we share.

The growing importance of Social Innovation

Social Innovation is growing in importance as part of the RB agenda. Two new forces are changing what it means to be a responsible business – Emerging Technologies and Higher Public Expectations of Business. The role of social innovation is to enable our responsibility in the new goals. It is “a new way of doing things that add value to communities, society, and the environment by unlocking value for our clients” and the business case for investment is clear.

There are four major benefits that social innovation presents. It restores trust in business – over 54% of companies in the Accenture Strategy Competitive Agility Index[2]experienced a material drop in trust and conservatively lost out on $180BN in revenue. It also allows for Growth and Inclusion at scale – the world’s largest problems viewed as business opportunities are collectively estimated to be worth $12–17 trillion by 2030. It plays a role in attracting and retaining talent – around 6 in 10 millennials indicate that a “sense of purpose” is a major factor in their decision to work for their current employer. Lastly, there is a financial correlation – companies with consistently high responsibility performance, measured through Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) ratings, outperform their peers financially an average 13.4% increase on return to shareholders.

Accenture Social Innovators is a program designed to catalyse opportunities to create positive social impact through client and ecosystem collaboration. To up-skill, connect, and showcase our people as social innovators. In FY20 we are scaling social innovators across all dimensions of Accenture. Underpinned by the global community, the certification program which is a work in progress offers insights and methods for client engagement, social innovation ecosystem, KPIs, and measurement of success.

At present, we are creating a robust role for Social Innovation in our Accenture operating model. We are working with the Social Innovators Global Platform Leadership team to create an operating model for including social innovation in our business. This will enable us to operationalise social innovation from idea generation, building capabilities and capacity of employees to be certified social innovators, amplification through communities of practice, converting demand generation into deals, and serving as a triage function for those navigating from where to go to pursue a great opportunity or bring life to an idea. Our ambition is to become the SA change agent in the New by changing the very concept of how business is conducted with broad ecosystem consciousness. We also aim to be market leaders in RB and the first to come to our clients’ minds as their strategic partner in helping them grow into a responsible future. This will enable us to truly deliver on our purpose of Unlocking Africa’s abundance for all and shaping the destiny of the continent.


[1]Seeking New Leadership – Responsible leadership for a sustainable and equitable world. Available at: https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/PDF-115/Accenture-DAVOS-Responsible-Leadership-Report.pdf

[2]Formula Won – A new way to measure Corporate Competitiveness. Available at: https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/PDF-57/Accenture-Formula-Won-PoV.pdf#zoom=50

Khethiwe Nkuna is the Head of Corporate Citizenship and Inclusion and Diversity at Accenture, Africa

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