Companies need to understand their staff, customers and suppliers at a level that is never going to be achieved by simplistic questionnaires, argues Mallen Baker

Stakeholder engagement is seen as a core part of corporate responsibility.

You would think that since it is so important, the responsibility profession would have become sophisticated in how this is done. So far, my experience suggests that simply isn’t the case.

I still get asked by research companies such questions as “please rank the following companies on a scale of 1 to 10 on how socially responsible you think they are”, and “please say which of the following issues are most important, very important, quite important, or not very important to you”.

Such approaches are highly likely to provide you with junk data. This is partially because the questions seek highly nuanced responses (is it a 7 out of 10, or maybe an 8 out of 10?) where such quantification is ill advised at best.

And it is also because, when faced with such questionnaires, people lie. They don’t want to admit that they don’t know about company X’s track record on its supply chain when they’re being spoken to as a supposed expert in corporate responsibility. So they’ll make something up. The format of the questionnaires rather encourages it.

And even if it wasn’t junk data (but it will be) the exercise is still of considerably lower value than it need be if you make the extremely common mistake of asking stakeholders what they think of your reporting.

If they don’t care about your business, then how you report what you do will be completely irrelevant to them because they don’t yet see the value of engaging with you at all.

The purpose of stakeholder engagement should really be two fold.

First, it is to help inform the decision-making of the business by making visible some of the potential consequences of proposed decisions. That’s core business stuff, and of interest to stakeholders because it’s about the actions that may directly affect them.

Second, it is about building relationships with people that are important to the business – relationships on a level other than the one where people buy stuff from you.

Focus and sophistication

For stakeholder engagement to work at that level, it has to be focused and sophisticated.

And focused on the right people. Too much time is spent on “experts”, who are not your stakeholders, and not enough with your staff, customers and suppliers, who really are.

Your mission is to understand stakeholders with the same degree of depth as your marketers seek to understand customers. But it is even more challenging – because whereas the marketers aim only to understand customers through the things that influence their buying behaviours, you need to understand the thoughts, fears and aspirations that affect them in their lives as citizens.

When it comes to stakeholders, you’re not initially focusing on individuals, but on a context – that is, the context by which the relationship with your company is created.

They won’t be interested in engaging with you just as a matter of course – as though talking to a supermarket, or a law firm, about its approach to carbon reductions is important to them.

It will work because they see that it affects them – their life hopes, fears and aspirations, and the impact that you may have on those.

For me, the most interesting results from stakeholder engagement exercises have come from surprising quarters – but only when there was a process designed to explore understanding, not to fill in the boxes of a limited-focus questionnaire.

Like the company that carried out a workshop with young apprentices on its workforce and learned, to its surprise (and a degree of dismay) why their standard approaches to communicating their sustainability report internally were completely missing the mark.

There’s some useful cross-fertilisation to be done between the corporate responsibility team and the marketing team in this area.

After all, if marketers could see that understanding customers as citizens would help them to build trust with those customers – they ought to be very interested, right?

And their knowledge of research techniques that get real human insights even in those situations where people are inclined to lie, or where their aspirational statements don’t meet their actions (even if they’ve persuaded themselves of the reverse) can be an interesting starting point for a more creative stakeholder discussion.

Mallen Baker is managing director of Daisywheel Interactive and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation.

corporate responsibility  CR Strategy  customers  Mallen Baker  staff  stakeholder engagement  supplier engagement 

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