As more companies show interest in creating corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports that actually demonstrate transparency and accountability, there is a surge in integrated reporting, or “one report,” in which a company’s financials and sustainability reports are intertwined into a single report. One concern over integrated reporting is that just like a company’s CSR report, that document will sit on a shelf collecting dust or hog space as a PDF file on a hard drive, read by few except the occasional academic, business analyst, or activist.
Just as the “Web 2.0” results in an Internet that is more interactive and engaging, thanks to social media tools, CSR is evolving from documents that are full of pretty pictures but pallid words to a participatory experience that motivates stakeholders, suppliers, and customers to share their suggestions. CSR is becoming proactive, instead of reactive, with companies benefiting from the results. In January, IBM led a 72-hour “Eco-Efficiency Jam” during which anyone around the world could give their insight on issues from green IT to improving the company’s environmental performance. Timberland’s Voices of Challenge has the goal of involving one million “Earthkeepers” who will weigh in on how the apparel company can reduce emissions, reduce waste, and improve worker conditions throughout its supply chain. Now The Accountability Web, a cooperative project led by Harvard Kennedy School’s Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative, suggests steps companies can take to ensure a compelling platform that allows their stakeholders to participate in sustainability-related discussions.
According to Bill Baue, the Executive Director of Sea Change Media and a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, the challenge companies face is getting stakeholders involved and enthusiastic with their CSR reporting. Just like having a Twitter feed or Facebook page is simply not enough to gain followers for your business or cause, building an interactive platform is not enough to affect change. The trick, said Baue, is opening up the terms of engagement, which in turn will change the conversation between stakeholders and management. In other words, a firm’s CSR committee cannot assume that a dynamic web platform boasting the best of Web 2.0 tools means that if you build it, they will come.
Baue noted that corporate accountability and web technology are following a very similar path—so it is only natural that these two trends would converge. Along with Dr. Marcy Murninghan, a Senior Joint Researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School, The Accountability Web offers several recommendations, including the following:
- Adapt, don’t just adopt. Companies shouldn’t just view Web 2.0 tools like Twitter as an extension of their communication, such as the announcement of a new product. Utilize these tools for a constructive dialogue between companies and stakeholders to improve accountability.
- Build the online community and technology in parallel. Having a LinkedIn Group, Facebook Page, or Twitter ID hardly guarantee that your firm will gain followers, nor interest them in the move towards sustainability. A company has to determine the goals for social interaction and choose the most relevant technological tools to achieve them.
- Don’t venture into Web 2.0 engagement without clear guidelines for respectful and productive communication. One example would be creating rules for critiquing practices and policies—not people.
- Face-to-face communication will never go away and can co-exist with social media. Companies will never do away with annual or even quarter meetings—and conferences and symposia will still occur. The Accountability Web recommends a “blended engagement” strategy, in which a company’s management and stakeholders can determine which medium (face-to-face or web-based) is best for a particular circumstance.
Interactive technology and corporate accountability will lead towards improved engagement and accountability. The key is for companies and stakeholders to collaborate, not just communicate. Using social media, both parties can work together to build new ideas and offer solutions that either probably would not achieve on its own.
You can view the full report on the Harvard Kennedy School’s website.
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