Making environmental, health and safety compliance sexy may seem impossible, but the Sustainable Performance Forum Americas 2014 conference came close. With former NASA astronaut Capt. John Creighton on stage, a Discovery Bar in the lobby and over 500 attendees with roles spanning the sustainability spectrum, enterprise software company Enablon turned an enterprise event into an industry influencer.
Now in its sixth year, SPF Americas attracts EHS compliance managers and sustainability innovators. Rule enforcers plus silo breakers makes a potentially combustible mixture, but these elements can transform organizations — if they can find a way to work together.
The EHS system is a catalyst for transformation. Sophisticated EHS software platforms can collect and parse Big Data, allowing compliance managers to work efficiently while contributing to their company's knowledge pool. Analytics captured for risk-management purposes can improve performance and even support CSR programs and sustainability reporting.
"Even a mom-and-pop shop has to complete safety reviews. The compliance requirements are there regardless," said Chris McClean, principal analyst and research director at Forrester Research. "These tools help companies manage their compliance responses more efficiently. Better performance translates into better results."
Earlier this year, McClean released a report analyzing 19 governance, risk and compliance software platforms. Enablon's platform emerged as one of the leaders, but as McClean points out, a wide range of variables factor into selecting the right platform.
Leveraging EHS systems for efficiency, resilience and compliance
Enablon doesn't define sustainability according the classic "triple bottom line" but by more essential attributes: efficiency, resilience and compliance. My charge as keynote panel moderator was to get into the minds of strategists, managers, analysts and developers to expose opportunities and challenges associated with EHS systems. In talking with McClean and other panelists, I learned how these systems help companies navigate the sea of data to improve performance, manage risk and ensure compliance.
"In today's information-intense world, we all can easily get swamped in data and information overload," said John Mogge, environment and nuclear market global director of technology, practice and design for CH2MHill. "The strongest environmental and sustainability programs are based on best available and sound data, which inform both your operations and your risk management programs."
Properly informed management systems enhance an organization's value-creation efforts for both the short term and the long term, and "we have a lot of proof to support this," explained Mogge, who has led complex projects for clients ranging from the 2012 Olympics in London to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Allen Stegman, general director of environmental and hazardous materials for BNSF Railway, said scalability is also important in an enterprise-wide EHS system. "Gathering information (vs. data) allows us to transition from lagging metrics to leading indicators and predictive analytics so that we can continue to drive improvement in our performance," said Stegman.
An EHS system can help a company become more resilient, but a good fit is crucial. If improperly selected or misunderstood, risk management systems ostensibly there to "risk-proof" your company can become "something else you have to worry about risk-proofing," warned Scott Nadler, senior partner at ERM.
"You know things are going to go poorly from time to time. But are incidents a one-time thing or is this a pattern of things going poorly?" said McClean. Performance systems can help establish and maintain patterns of performance that become part of a company's brand, leading to what McClean calls "brand resilience."
Translating EHS data to CSR deliverables
"Through performance improvements such as fuel efficiency," said Stegman, "BNSF Railway can now move 1 ton of freight, on average, approximately 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel." The company sees corporate social responsibility as a means to communicate improvements with stakeholders.
For example, BNSF Railway "shares with our customers how we are reducing their emissions by more than 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions each year," said Stegman. "That is equivalent to our customers eliminating the consumption and resultant emissions produced by burning more than 3 billion gallons of diesel fuel."
If relaying EHS performance is a driving purpose behind CSR, what prevents these different teams from working together more often?
"A lot of CSR data is only available after a bit of corporate crow-barring," said Joe Jones, principal sustainability consultant with SustainIt, in his presentation. Getting energy managers, transport managers and the OHS team to part with "their" data is challenging, said Jones, "but if you can get hold of that information, then you can subject that data to the math you need to go from no CSR data to what I would consider quite a strong CSR dataset."
One of the most interesting differences he sees between the U.S. and Europe is the firewall between CSR and EHS.
"I've found — and firmly believe — that companies need to view CSR as a core part of business strategy rather than a risk mitigation exercise," he said. "Sustainability should be about a global stakeholder rather than just cashflow protection.
"Clever software is often the best way to do this, especially if you get fancy with it and start working out stuff like CO2 impact per average employee."
Good EHS data can be the cornerstone of a broader CSR data strategy. Energy and accident data are one of the easiest components of CSR data to come by, and this data is already being collected at the EHS level. As Jones sees it, "finding a way to make this data usable allows corporates to really kick start their CSR momentum."
How humans help and hinder EHS implementations
As much as technology can do, the human piece often gets in the way. That's why one of the key features among the leaders in Forrester's report is usability.
"We've completely redesigned our platform to make sure it is easy to use, intuitive, and beautiful. It is made by humans, for humans," said Phil Tesler, co-founder and CEO of Enablon North America. By offering "the most intuitive user interface on the market," Enablon's software aims to simplify the user experience, thus enabling the rigorous data collection that can lead to superior performance.
As on-the-ground guardians of data, compliance managers need a platform that allows them to respond in a crisis situation. Much further upstream, CSR staff and consultants can use this data to build the sustainability case. Facilitating this connection are the software developers and IT consultants who create and implement compliance-oriented platforms. Together, EHS, CSR and IT form a triumvirate of competencies capable of forging truly sustainable solutions.
However, most users still only exploit a fraction of the available functionality of EHS systems. Jill Gilbert, president of Lexicon Systems, explained in her presentation that the breakdown often occurs at a failure to anticipate and meet basic business requirements.
"Companies can make emotional decisions. They see bells and whistles and forget what their needs are," said Gilbert, who sees the EHS system purchase as analogous to the car-buying experience.
"Say you're car-shopping and you're thinking, 'Gee, the Tesla only costs $900 per month. It's such a cool car and does so much. Maybe it's too expensive, but I'll make it work.' Then you get it and realize it can't carry much or hold the child carriers in the back." In other words, the slickest product doesn't always fit a company's needs, nor its budget.
Gilbert offered clients seeking an EHS system some advice: "Get buy-in up front. Pre-qualify. Settle infighting. Get the right people involved. You have to resolve those issues before you invest in a system." Gilbert said clients who follow her advice on business requirements can shorten the lifecycle by months and save "millions of dollars in the process."
I encountered a range of explanations for why companies don't maximize the opportunities presented by translating EHS performance into CSR results. Another barrier is the persistent confusion around what sustainability even means. As Nadler explained, "sustainability is a term of art."
And then there's good old-fashioned human error. As Capt. John Creighton said during his keynote, "Sometimes your wingman's an idiot."
No fighter pilot is really an idiot, but anyone can become myopic. People with a compliance orientation (and I'm generalizing here) tend to regard CSR with suspicion, which makes sense when you think about their day-to-day priorities. At the same time, CSR types have little connection to the daily rigors of managing risk. That's somebody else's job.
Creighton told us that in times of high stress, pilots revert to their native tongues. The same may hold true for people on the ground. As stressful as the average workday has become, it's difficult to reach beyond immediate concerns. But if we can learn to breathe outside of the insulated modules of our limited perspectives and let go of the jargon that encapsulates them, a universe awaits.
A launching pad for industry leadership
"A lot of companies over the last 10 years are taking the voluntary approach because they see business values other than checking a box, such as the desire to recruit and retain good talent," said McClean. "If you comply, good, you won't get fined, but if you go above and beyond, you attract good people and build a better reputation."
A narrow, half-hearted EHS system rollout is not going to produce stratospheric results. Nor is there is a one-size-fits all solution. The important thing is to do a thorough job at selecting the right system for a given situation, then forge a culture that is forward-looking and resilient enough to handle the task of maximizing its potential.
Management information systems have the power to bridge EHS and CSR so long as the people using them know how to work collaboratively. Only when the powerful forces of technology and human ingenuity are integrated will sustainability truly lift off.
Top image of Endeavor space shuttle by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr.