Thursday, November 12, 2009

12 ways to engage stakeholders and the AA1000SE standard

So you think you know how to engage stakeholders, right ? Most of the CSR reports I read and review don't really address stakeholder engagement with any real depth. It is always included as a headline, but more often than not, the headline is followed by a list of declarative generic hot-air such as "engaging with stakeholders helps us understand their concerns and respond appropriately" or "we regularly engage with stakeholders on the issues they care about" or "it is an important part of our mission to listen to our stakeholders and respond to their concerns" or the best of all "engaging with stakeholders is a core element of our approach to responsible business practices, and we are transparent about the ways we engage with stakeholders, the issues that arise, and our response to them" (ok, i invented that last one - sounds too good to be true, right?)

Many sustainability reports refer to employee or customer surveys as evidence of engagement, or the fact that there are regular meetings with suppliers to discuss their next price decrease or delivery lead times - but this is not engagement. This is doing the stuff necessary to do the business, in a traditional  profit-oriented way. Stakeholder engagment is a relationship of equals based on open and transparent dialogue which results in better business, better relationships and a better triple bottom line. Here are the top 12 ways to engage stakeholders:

  • Invite them to your new product launch (makes the room look fuller, as though there is LOTS of interest)
  • Invite them to the Christmas Party (unless they are wearing a yarmilke)
  • Ask them to come and view your new office art collection (don't worry if the Mickey Mouse poster is not their favourite objet d'art)
  • Suggest they invite you for a tour of their manufacturing plant (get prepared for a long trip to northern China)
  • Ask them what they expect of your Company (then make for the nearest emergency exit)
  • Call a stakeholder panel (and if it doesnt answer, call again)
  • Make a complaint about their service (they must be doing SOMETHING wrong)
  • Give them your private office hotline number (and take care not to answer Hello Mother)
  • Tell them you will share your last tub of Chunky Monkey if they will talk honestly about their experience with your business (ok, maybe not, offer them generic vanilla instead)
  • Ask your stakeholders about the things they consider most material (dont be surprised if they repond: polyester, wool, acrylic etc)
  • Subpoena them (sometimes you just gotta forget the carrot and go for the stick)
  • Ask them to memorize a tape containing the mantra " your company is wonderful and meets all my needs" (and loop-broadcast it at your next investor roadshow)
But seriously folks, stakeholder engagement has its own standard. For the folks who take it seriously. This standard has been revised recently. It's the AccountAbility AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement standard, which is currently the subject of a series of  stakeholder consultations around the world, and is available as a wiki for input by cyberspace dwellers.
The Standard "provides a defined process of engagement and participation that that will enable comprehensive and balanced involvement that will result in strategies, plans, actions and outcomes that address and respond to issues and impacts in an accountable way." (yes, those long AccountAbility sentences again) It covers the principle of inclusivity, the way to analyse stakeholder groups, and the way to plan, prepare and manage stakeholder engagement processes. As part of our bit to make the world a better place, my Company BeyondBusiness, in partnership with another local consulting firm GoodVision, conducted a stakeholder consultation on the AA1000SE in Tel Aviv earlier this week.

Around 20 representatives of the business and non-profit sectors attended, including CSR Managers of our client companies such as Bank Leumi, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Motorola Israel , Maccabi Healthcare Services and others. The Meeting was generously hosted by the National Lottery organization.

In general, there was much interest in the concept of stakeholder engagement, which hasn't  developed in a structured way in Israel. There was general appreciation for the adoption of a stucutured approach to stakeholder engagement, and a recognition that it takes two to tango - ie even if a business wants to engage external stakeholders, there must be a reciprocal interest in responding and a willingness to engage in open and constructive dialogue. It is not always easy to bring all parties to the table.

We all agreed, however, that you get stakeholder engagement, sooner or later, whether you want it or not. In today's era of cyber-information, no corporation operates without someone noticing. Sooner or later, if you dont engage your stakeholders, they will engage you.
It's advisable to apply a structured management process to ensure this is a positive interaction. The AA1000SE standard provides the basis.

I am now going to engage with some Chunky Monkey ..... :)

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm . Visit our website at:

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