Friday, March 6, 2015

Will I take the G4 Exam?

Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo !

GRI has introduced a G4 Exam. With bold billing as the Next Step for Sustainability Professionals, the G4 Exam is a 60 question multiple choice exam covering the GRI reporting phases. GRI says: "The G4 Exam will give candidates an opportunity to demonstrate to the market their ability to use the G4 Guidelines. "

I beg to differ. 

Pay lots of money. Attend a GRI Training Course (typically around Euro 1,500 or more). Pay more money (Euro 315-500 per exam). Take the exam. And WOW. Collect all the certificates and get your name on the GRI website so that people will think you can write a G4 Sustainability Report. Answering questions about the framework does not equate to ability to use the framework. Something doesn't work here for me. 

While I have long advocated that GRI use its force for good to improve quality use of G3/G4, my reaction to the G4 Exam is like.. err.... super cringe. In my view, it implies that quality reporting is equal to knowledge of a reporting framework, and this is simply not the case. Answering 60 multiple choice questions about G4 does not make you a good reporter and does not even demonstrate that you fully understand the intricacies of G4 reporting. The pass mark is 75%. So you can get 15 questions wrong.

And OMG. I hope this does not indicate a new trend in sustainability disclosure. Will we see a CDP Exam? An IIRC Exam? A SASB exam? A GHG Protocol Exam? A UNGC COP Exam? An ISO 26000 Exam? Maybe it's back to school for everyone..

The implication is that reporting is only about understanding the technicalities of the G4 framework. Reporting is at least as much about the process and the content and navigating the endless organizational hurdles that need to be overcome before a Sustainability Report is birthed. A useful G4 report is more than the sum of the boxes you tick and the disclosure labels you add.

Of course, if a company decides to use the framework, it should use it correctly, so some form of quality control is a good thing, as I have (very) often said in the past. But the quality control should cover the report, not the theoretical knowledge of the framework. Anyone who has sat through a training program and memorized the framework can sit the exam and get a certificate. They may have never worked on a report.

On the other hand, perhaps the G4 Exam is a good measure of an individual's commitment to fully understanding the framework before taking up the practice of reporting. Perhaps the G4 Exam is good for internal reporters who want an additional qualification or proof of competence within their own organization. Perhaps the G4 Exam will actually help prevent consultants and reporters becoming confused with the finer points of the guidelines and misrepresenting them in reports, as so often happens. Perhaps it will help people actually notice when they do.

Wondering if my views about the G4 Exam are overly critical, I did a little asking around. I won't mention any names, but these are the reactions I received when I asked a group of sustainability professionals I respect from around the world whether the G4 exam is a good thing or a bad thing:

"It smacks of opportunism. I also have concerns about how it extends the GRI brand."
"My initial thought was, that's weird, and possibly a waste of time, but on reflection it seems OK - though it would be much more meaningful if they developed a proper credential from this. The test alone is too obscure to create a qualification mark for practitioners."
"It can be a way to shift "enthusiastic" to "book smart".
"I think it's an interesting initiative, however, I believe that many organizations will do it do just for marketing I think reporting ability is shown more by experience, since that gives richness to the learning and continuous improvement. It seems difficult that GRI accepts only a methodological framework."
"This attracts relatively unqualified people that then can use the GRI name to promote themselves. The exam will “certify” as “experts” people that have merely read the guidelines. They capitalize on the brand name to lure naive people into their courses and now exam. Irresponsible, crassly commercial."
"I think it is better than nothing (i.e., anyone can be an expert) but it is misleading that good test score = expert."

The real question is will reporting quality improve as a result of people passing the G4 Exam?

GRI has always sat on the sidelines with regard to report quality. The Application Level checks of old often led to misrepresentation, enabling reporters to use GRI officialdom to claim "highest accolades" and "certification" by GRI when the checks only covered a small random selection of indicators. Now, GRI has developed a suite of report checks at higher prices than in the past, and even, a higher than higher priced "fast track". So now, if you are a non-Organizational Stakeholder corporation, you can use the Content Index Service (Euro 4,500 for a comprehensive report), the Materiality Disclosures Service (Euro 2,400), or the Application Level Service (Euro 1,750). For an additional Euro 750-850, GRI promises a turnaround of half the regular time.

The thing is, that none of these "services" actually provide a thorough and reliable check on the quality of the report adherence to the G3 or G4 frameworks. They are all designed to confirm the presence of disclosures in the place that the reporters say they should be and/or the quantity of disclosures included in the report. In the Content Index and Materiality Matters checks, for example, if you have said you have reported EN1, GRI will check that your disclosure is on the page you said it was. But GRI will not check that the disclosure is complete or if it actually discloses everything that the framework requires. In other words, GRI will check that you have a train ticket and that you got on the right train, but GRI won't check that you actually stayed on the train until you got to your destination.

The Materiality Disclosures Check is less useful. It confirms that you included the material disclosures on the pages you said they should be - including, specifically, a list of material topics (G4-19). But it does not check that, in the rest of the report, you have actually disclosed anything material (i.e. performance indicators that demonstrate performance relating to material issues). What's the point of that?

All of this is GRI side-stepping reporting quality and increasing reporting "we are great" hype. The G4 exam, in my view, amplifies the hype. Have GRI publicly confirm to everyone you can do something without you ever having done it.  I think it's rather disappointing that GRI lends its highly-regarded brand to this sort of individual promotion.

If GRI were committed to improving reporting quality, it would make more of an effort to think deeply and strategically about what quality application of the GRI reporting frameworks actually means and then go back to the drawing board and develop a methodology to provide a reliable, comprehensive, thorough and meaningful check of report adherence. Skimming the surface with almost-quality checks may be convenient (and encourage uptake because it's easy) but the result it delivers does not advance sustainability or sustainability reporting. I have ceased recommending the use of these services to my clients. I just hope none of them ask me to take the G4 Exam.    

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Need help writing YOUR Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:   


eatehort said...

100% agree with all the things you say in this post!!

Daniel Roberts said...


You are correct of course, paid for exams and certifications are a commercial mechanism by which "NFP" organisations enhance their funding. We agree also that the GRI's offered service to review or otherwise comment on reports is a commercial service that does not add the value that consumers of the reports need; Assurance that the content is accurate and trustworthy.

You already know my concern that companies can use GRI reporting as a marketing tool, not to report actual sustainability, or for that matter an actual social conscience and true engagement with civil society and their wider stakeholders.

Yet the GRI is not alone in this; the Global Compact provides an entry-point into reporting, with a report that could be as little as a couple of pages. Yet again, there is no either validation of content or sanity check on the types of companies that can report.

As I've asked in the past, at what point does an industry of a company cross so far over the line that any report should be rejected. Imagine a company known to be acting as a front for IS or other terrorist supporting activity, yet it is able to produce a report that is fully compliant with GRI or other standards.

elaine said...

Thanks eatehort!

Thanks Daniel.
I make the distinction between assurance (checking that content is correct and relevant) and report quality (checking the framework has been applied correctly). GRI never does the former and does a sloppy job of the latter. Unfortunately. Reporting to UNGC is as you say rather bizarre, ranging from the totally rubbish to the fully-fledged GRI -based report. It's time the UNGC Stopped requiring separate reports .. but all orgs cling to what makes them different.. which is why the reporting landscape is so messy.....

elaine said...

Below is a comment I am posting on behalf of Aleksandra Dobkowski-Joy, President and Chief Operating Officer, Framework LLC ( who sent me a note by email. Here it is as she wrote it to me:

"It is frustrating on many levels to observe the recent proliferation of GRI “reporting services” that purport to increase the quality of reporting, while ensuring nothing of the sort.

The G4 exam (and the rote memorization contemplated therein) is no substitute for on-the-ground immersion into the application of the Guidelines. Reporting requires context, nuance, and interpretation—skills that are gained with experience handling the Guidelines and deep immersion into the particulars of a company’s material issues, metrics, stakeholder setting, and strategic objectives. For those of us with this deep experience, not only is the GRI test superfluous, it offends with its requirement to attend a training course prior to sitting for the exam. The GRI should rather require unsuccessful test-takers to attend a training course before trying again.

The GRI’s “check” offerings also leave much to be desired. If all that the GRI provides is a confirmation of how well a company follows the GRI-provided template for the GRI Index and whether the correct indicator number is placed on a certain page, it is a waste of money and time to submit to the process. As much as the GRI decries “box-ticking” within the materiality-based parameters of GRI G4, it is performing essentially that same exercise with regard to ensuring proper and consistent use of the Guidelines.

I am a staunch supporter of the Guidelines and sympathetic to the organization’s need to generate revenue. It is unfortunate that the GRI seems blind to the devaluation of its name through misguided “checks” and “tests”. I would instead welcome wholeheartedly the GRI taking a much strong stance on the actual substance of standards application in sustainability reporting."

Cindy Mehallow said...

Elaine and Alexandra, I admire the work you do and respect your opinions. I could not agree with you more, on all counts. As an GRI Organizational Stakeholder, graduate of GRI-certified training courses, and consultant for GRI reports, I also support the goals of the GRI. But, I was so disappointed to see this new testing mechanism offered by GRI. It does seem to be a misguided fund-raising effort that can't truly assess the capabilities required to produce a substantive report. I concur that GRI would be better served to implement measures that would raise the bar for the quality of report content.

Alex Nichols said...

Hi Elaine, and the SASB exam arrived! best regards to you, Alex

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