Working in the field of corporate responsibility and IT technology brings you in front of some odd situations and the occasional fascinating opportunity.
In my experience, the IT Geeks and corporate social responsibility (CSR) Gurus in this space seem to live, for the most part, in separate but parallel worlds. During my academic research and my practice over the last decade, I have uncovered some new ways where those worlds occasionally come together in exciting and productive ways.
Take for example stakeholder engagement — a concept at the very heart of the corporate responsibility movement. By paying attention to the impacts to and from stakeholders, a business can move beyond a flat shareholder view of the world and capture the benefits of being a truly sustainable business. In practice, it’s a daunting task and one that for most businesses remains very much a soft and fuzzy subject largely left to the CSR department.
The complexity of identifying stakeholder categories, assessing impacts, and discussing with stakeholders is increased by the fact that for every category a business will likely have thousands of individual stakeholders. It would be impossible to discuss with all of these individually, so business and institutional players fall back on the core concept of “representation” to dialogue with a few people who claim, and usually try very hard, to represent a given stakeholder class.
I interviewed more than 60 such representatives involved in the development of CSR and sustainability standards and initiatives around the world over the last five years and have worked with many more in the last decade. Both study and experience showed that, although these people are often doing the best they can to represent their stakeholder groups, their industries, or their countries, they often struggle with what stakeholder representation actually means or entails.
By looking at this process from a collaborative learning perspective, I uncovered at least three different ways that professionals view the art of representation.
There are the “experts” who see themselves as representative in the interpretative sense: They are typical of their stakeholder groups and expert in their domains. Representation for them is all about having the credibility and knowledge to be appointed an expert and entails a huge degree of freedom to represent without much immediate consultation.
A second group is the “professional representatives.” They take a very structural view of representation. Often members of organizations like trade associations or NGOs claim their seats at the table and set about communicating the agreed policies and positions of their respective host groups.
I call the third and diverse group “willing learners.” They have an intuitive sense that representation is a complex learning process that needs to be actively managed; however they nearly always struggle to understand how to be effective in that process.
The consequence of this confused situation is that some powerful representative voices travel loud and clear through these processes, but weaker, fainter voices are often left behind. Learning is lost or, to put it in a way familiar to IT ears, some of the requirements are lost.
When this happens, stakeholder engagement drives towards a seemingly inevitable consensus of the powerful where majority rules, and outlier views often containing more value and information (including weak signals that indicate low-frequency high risks or innovative opportunities) are averaged out — not really where the empowerment agenda of CSR wanted to end up.
This is where IT culture and practices have something to contribute. For years the size, scale, and complexity of IT projects has evolved into a rigorous and detailed approach to project management that could have wider implications in soft systems like stakeholder engagement. Requirements capture is part of the everyday toolset that links requirements in IT projects to their project stakeholders and allows participants to trace these requirements through the challenges and changes of complex IT project management.
Whether you are a fan of universal modeling language (UML) or other conventions of modeling requirements, there is no denying that by capturing requirements explicitly and tracing them from engagement through to process, product, or even organizational design, one can raise stakeholder engagement from a dark art to a well structured and detailed learning process. Requirements treated in this way at least have an audit trail. They can be prioritized, challenged, and even modified, but they can never be lost.
Of course, to realize the potential of these techniques in CSR, IT professionals need to move a step towards the world of issues and “content,” and CSR professionals need to be open to trying techniques that were “not invented here” in their own context. In the last few years I have seen many individuals personally embody this learning process through their own professional journeys: IT project managers becoming CSR experts; supply chain managers deploying IT systems to engage their suppliers; and CSR professionals getting deep into IT systems and culture.
Sustainable IT is a great melting pot of skills and experience, and some incredible talent is emerging from that learning process. I’m looking forward to seeing where these future leaders go and what they contribute to some of the thorny problems of CSR and sustainability that we face together.
This blog reflects some of the ideas and findings of the DBA thesis, “Collaborative Learning and the Co-Design of Corporate Responsibility,” available through Bradford School of Management in the United Kingdom, and is the subject of a draft academic paper on this theme.