Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Don't shoot the piano player

I just re-read an intersting conversation on JustMeans which was started back in May last year by Martin Smith the CEO who said:

This generated 36 comments to date and others are still trickling in. Here are my pick of the most interesting ones:

Martin Smith:
CSR reports do not work because the process of creating them is artificial

Sandra Van der Lingen:
We need to distinguish between CSR reporting as a business process and a CSR report. I think the old fashioned printed version of a CSR report is dead. CSR reporting as process however will remain a crucial component of CSR because of the accountability of a company towards its stakeholders

Joanna Hoopes:
No one reads them because they not connected to the company's revenues, only inform decision-making on a very limited basis and are about as interesting as watching grass grow. Timberland's stakeholder engagement metrics are the most relevant and progressive I've seen.

Heather Rankin:
CR reports are not well read because the target audience is small. They are not intended for mass consumption - they are generally for opinion formers such as investors, analysts, regulators, NGOs etc. The discipline of producing a CR report helps improve performance and raises the profile of sustainability issues - and the people managing them - within a company. And even though they are not widely read people often feel assured when a company produces such a report - sure, it's no guarantee of improved performance, but it's a positive sign.

Kevin Long:
I think printed CSR reports should be used as door stoppers and wrapping paper. They should all be online and could still drive accountability and improvement.

Christine Arena: If I were the CRO of a corporation (which I hope to be one day), the very first thing I would do is strike this line item from my budget. Then I'd reallocate the funds toward the research and development of future products that help solve social and environmental problems and also make the company money.

Michelle Bernhart:
CSR reports aren't Harry Potter page-turners, but they serve a valuable purpose

JoAnn Strickon:
I've never read anyone else's, but I LOVE seeing my company's CSR report. It's great to read about all of the people we have helped, and to know that I work for a company that cares about people, community, the environment... Check it out -- it's really colorful and interesting (Manpower Report)

As I re-read this conversation, I had to smile at the range of comments and how amazing it is that reporting generates such extreme viewpoints. I was busily typing another response but got blocked by the 1,000 character limit, so I decided to have my full say here, at home, in the comfort of my own blog. That's what blogs are for, right? 
It's true that I get frustrated when people say CSR reports are dead or worthless, because I spend almost all of my days helping Companies get their act together so that they can report, and helping them put together their reports, and I wouldn't like to think I am wasting my time :) What a worthless life I could be leading if everyone felt that reports served no purpose. Sigh! Fortunately, most of my time is spent in working with Companies on processes, not just writing the actual reports, and I could fill this page in a second with the added value these processes have brought to the Companies I serve including a client who attributes directly to reporting a very strong increase in turnover in a recent business activity. I always wonder if the people who denounce CSR Reports have ever really really really read a good report, or have ever  been involved in or with  a business that is writing one. Are the people who would use reports as doorstoppers really those who have personally experienced and fully understand the process of reporting?
Reporting has its place but it is not a total one-stop-shop solution for all corporate processes and communications and it is not done well by enough Companies. But it is done by many Companies and that says something about its relevance, even if the result is somewhat clumsy to start with. Over time, they get better. But to say that CSR reports do not work because the process is artificial is only true when the company CSR is artificial. To expect that you can produce a report and suddenly it's the talk of the town is naive. As I have said many times, reporting is not the communication tool, it's the platform. Reporting is not stand-alone, it's part of a total sustainability strategy which includes transparency. Your communications work begins BEFORE your report is written and it REALLY BEGINS AFTER  your report is published. Too often, when people talk about reporting, they confuse the delivery of transparency with the delivery of the report. A Company doesn't have to print and ship reports  (as the only paper consumption in a business which seems to give people a problem is that used for a CSR report - I have never quite been able to understand that) - a web-based reporting format is adequate to deliver transparency. And I have yet to discover any other process in a business which focusses the mind around a comprehensive holistic sustainability strategy as the reporting process does. If it is done sincerely and in a quality way.
So maybe what people are frustrated with is not the reporting but the performance, and the fact that many Companies report without the delivering the performance. Well, folks, what I say is what are you doing about it? Are you invested in denouncing the system, or in improving it ? Are you complaining about reports or are you talking to the Companies whose reports you preceive as whitewash, greenwash, eyewash, marcom and wallpaper? 
Some see integrated reporting as the solution. But, frankly, I think it's the solution to the wrong problem. The problem is not the reporting format. The problem is the ability of businesses to strategically address sustainability issues and seamlessly embed them into their practices. The solution is to change the way Boards and Execs think about sustainability and about their role. The reporting format is an outflow of this. Integrated reporting wont make for an integrated business, unless people read the integrated report, notice the lack of integration thinking,  and demand improved performance. Just like they can do right now with separate reporting (because the financials are available for those who want to see them). And even today, many integrated reports are just separate reports in the same binding, and not evidence of a real shift in thinking.
Killing reporting is like shooting the piano player. Get the piano tuned and the report will turn out fine. And, frankly, we will all enjoy the music a whole lot better.
elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:   


Mario Vellandi said...

To hell with those who believe reporting is a waste of time; if they're not in the communications space, then their opinion is worthless. Most all activities of any business and organization need to be measured and communicated in some form or another so internal and external stakeholders can know what's happening.

The entire process of sustainability communications from data collection, measurement, fleshing it out, and distributing it - through whatever channels (online, print, newsletter...) - is what we're trying to improve.

Regarding the tone, format, and channels used, it obviously depends on the audience. And it's clear that multiple audiences exist for which a style ranging from pure objective to creative storytelling subjective - will be appropriate and helpful.

Clayton T Ford said...

I totally agree Elaine - the CSR report itself is actually only one small aspect of the overall CSR commitment & communication - the tip of the iceberg so to speak.

If nothing else, a commitment to reporting requires & drives a commitment to measure and hopefully improve, which requires/drives actions and engagement. The publication of the report should (though not always) drive further engagement and communication, internally as much as externally.

Of course the reports themselves can always be improved - online, reader-friendly executive summaries, engaging story-telling - and particularly in areas of transparency and assurance which you are doing such good work to raise the bar.

It is true that you get what you measure, and if not for the CSR report, the measuring might quietly slip off the radar, and we may end up getting a lot less.

Martin Smith said...

I agree with a lot of what Elaine is saying. However, I do think the CSR reporting process needs a lot of changes.

I work with over a dozen F100 companies in some capacity with the people who are doing reporting. Most find the process difficult and many treat it simply as disclosure and nothing more.

In general, I think the people inside a company that do the reporting process want to change it, but don't have the buy-in from management to change it. I was with a major pharma company yesterday owned by private equity and the CSR Director said simply "this PE company doesn't believe in any of this stuff. To still be putting out a PDF is a miracle in and of itself"

I think CSR Directors may have the hardest job in the world because very few people outside their organizations take them seriously, and whenever they want to drive change internally it is like moving a mountain.

That the current format and structure of CSR Reporting is not as creative as it could be probably says a lot more about how much large companies buy into sustainability rather than anything about the people who are doing reporting.

elaine said...

Hello Mario, Clayton and Martin!

Thank you for reading and for your replies.

I wholeheartedly agree with Martin's point that the current state of reporting is more reflective of Companies' approach to sustainability than the report itself. That's what I meant about the piano player. As corporations mature, and their sustainability becomes truly "sustainable" , so their reporting will be more substantive and relevant.

I agree too with Clayton's excellent point - that if we dont report, we might just not measure.

And finally, Mario says it very clearly - businesses need to measure and communicate.

Despite not being perfect, the reporting process is the best thing we have right now. But I am sure in a few years time it will look somewhat different. (hopefully different = better)

Thank you all for your contributions to the discussion!


Melanie said...

I agree. A CSR report needs to be seen as a process not just a final product. We hear again and again from companies that do CSR reports right that the value in the report is in the process of compiling it every year and the issues the process addresses.

elaine said...

Thank you Melanie for reading and for taking the time to comment. Of course, I agree with your insight. regards, elaine

Anonymous said...

I translate these things. I agree with the sceptics. They are always unreadable, seldom rise above crude PR and can always be cut by 75%. Don't disagree with presenting the information in principle, but it should be online only, for those who really care how many trees their employer planted. In print, it is a considerable waste of time, manpower, effort and money. I have often wondered how much CO2 emissions and energy consumption could be cut by if all corporate CSR and sustainability report production were banned.

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