Advice for the Shoestring Practitioner: Sustainability Mapping

Are you a Shoestring Practitioner?  A Shoestring Practitioner is someone with a passion for doing good, for doing the right thing, for doing things better, but who is working on a shoestring:  constrained in his or her efforts by a lack of resources, such as staff, time, money, or organizational support.  This post is intended for the Shoestring Practitioner, especially one who is at or near the beginning of a sustainability journey in their organization, but may also be helpful to others trying to advance a corporate responsibility (CR) strategy.  I prepared this post in response to questions received through my network about how to engage employees in CR planning.

In an earlier post [Should sustainability have a seat in the C-suite? December 1, 2010], I talked about the need to develop a fulsome understanding of the sustainability landscape in order to guide decisions about corporate responsibility (CR) strategy.  A comprehensive and well-founded CR strategy will be informed by current and future business drivers pertinent to sustainability, including evolving regulatory frameworks, changing stakeholder expectations (including, but by no means limited to customers), emerging standards and best practice, pressing risks and opportunities, and the organization’s own capacities and competitive positioning.  It must also consider, especially in a complex, diverse organization, the range of perspectives and opinions, the differences in awareness and understanding about CR and sustainability issues that may exist among the employees who will eventually be responsible for implementing a CR strategy, as well as among other key stakeholder groups.

A key component of sustainability mapping is stakeholder engagement, particularly internal employee engagement.  Employees can provide unique insight into current and emerging challenges and opportunities, shed light on existing organizational strengths and weaknesses, and highlight areas where CR and sustainability programming could advance strategic business goals.  Moreover, early employee engagement around CR and sustainability issues increases the relevance of strategies developed in response to their input and the likelihood of later buy-in and support.

While sustainability mapping can be a significant undertaking, especially in a large organization, employee engagement is something the Shoestring Practitioner often can tackle on their own, with limited resources.  This initial employee engagement can be as simple as a series of informal conversations with colleagues, guided by a little planning and supported with a few simple tools.

When planning the engagement, you – the Shoestring Practitioner – should try to identify and include knowledgeable representatives of key business units, especially those with external stakeholder interfaces.  This may include (but is not necessarily limited to) Human Resources, Investor Relations, Public Relations, and Operations.  If you don’t already know who these people are, use the company org chart or ask your colleagues or HR for advice.

Set the stage for your engagement by preparing an invitation to your selected contacts, providing a brief explanation of what you would like to discuss and why.  Prepare a questionnaire to guide the conversation and to make it easier to compile and compare feedback.  (If you have the resources, you can make the questionnaire available on-line, and potentially increase the scope of your engagement and make it easier for colleagues to participate and for you to collate responses.)

Your questionnaire should be tailored to your organization and objectives.  Here are some employee engagement questions I have successfully used for this purpose:

  • What are the top business risks facing our organization (i.e., risks affecting our licence to operate or business sustainability) in the next 3 to 5 years (and over longer timelines)?  Do you think our existing strategies, policies, and capacities are sufficient to manage these risks?
  • What must our organization do to earn and maintain societal consent to operate and grow our business? (This may be location or region-specific, and may differ for domestic versus international operations.)
  • Have you been asked by any external stakeholder (e.g., community, supplier, customer, regulator, investor, or other business partner) for information about our environment, health, or safety performance, governance practices, or community engagement programs? If so, in what context? Were you able to satisfactorily respond to the request?  If not, what information were you missing?
  • What do you think our responsibilities are as a corporation?  Are our existing policies, practices, and ways of doing business sufficient to fulfill our responsibilities? If not, what else is needed?
  • How well do the corporate vision and values align with your own?  Do you feel there is anything important missing from the corporate vision and values?
  • How do you think we should ensure the corporate vision and values are translated into action?
  • Do you think we need a CR strategy, policy, or program? If so, what should it cover?
  • How would a CR strategy, policy, or program help you to do your job?
  • What do you think we are particularly good at, as an organization?  How do you think we can leverage those strengths to improve our performance in key sustainability areas?

Of course, these are just a few possible questions, designed to gauge the existing level of awareness and understanding of CR and sustainability issues, assess the existing and potential capacity of the organization to address those issues, and identify risks and opportunities.  With your objectives in mind – are you trying to build a business case for CR or determine the appropriate scope of a CR policy? – frame up some questions that will give you the information you need.  Try and keep the questionnaire brief – if you are having one-on-one conversations over lunch, you might have up to an hour, but otherwise you may be lucky to get 15 or 30 minutes from a busy colleague…

Start small, with a select group of participants, and scale up as resources permit and as necessary to cover the scope of your organization.  Early respondents might reveal key issues that warrant deeper exploration: ask for suggestions about who else you should talk to, and offer to follow up with a summary of findings.

The feedback from your questionnaire will help you to define an appropriate scope and develop an approach to CR and sustainability that is relevant and sensitive to the realities of your specific organization.  For example, not only will you be able articulate the business case in terms of actual business- and sector-specific issues and risks, but also with reference to existing strengths and weaknesses of the organization’s existing policy framework and business practices.

Effective and early employee engagement is a critical – but not the only – success factor for integrating sustainability considerations into business practices, and for developing and implementing relevant and appropriate CR strategies.  I’ll address some of the other success factors and components of sustainability mapping in future posts.  Meanwhile, let me know if you found this advice helpful (or not!).  What have you tried? What did or didn’t work? Comments are welcome below.

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