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4 ways to increase internal collaboration and advance sustainability objectives

Building sustainable businesses requires zooming out and seeing the bigger picture.

This article is part of a series by BSR that will explore how corporate sustainability pros can work across departments on shared goals.

Over the last several weeks, we have been delighted to publish a series of articles to help you and your sustainability team shape your internal collaboration efforts. With this series, we have aimed to provide concrete guidance on pain points, success factors and collaboration potential for a range of functions — from marketing to risk to investor relations to HR. Our findings are based on years of experience helping our member companies build traction for sustainability internally and externally.

This final piece aims to take a step back and look at the big picture. We agree that the era of quick wins for sustainability is over, and that the next phase of work involves building resilient business strategies that take sustainability as their foundation. As we assert in our recent BSR report, "Redefining Sustainable Business: Management for a Rapidly Changing World (PDF)," the ability to drive change in today’s organizations is the single most important skill set for today’s sustainability teams.

This means that as sustainability professionals, you will need to reimagine your role in four main ways: as the creator of value for companies; as a futurist; as a change agent; and as a coalition-builder. This requires a more deliberate, structured and thoughtful approach to working with other functions. But if you succeed in these four areas, then your sustainability function will thrive as an engine of innovation at a time when innovation is sorely needed.

What do we see as the key success factors for internal collaboration overall?

1. Focus on internal engagement using a materiality principle

The concept of shared value can be used both internally and externally. This means making a deliberate effort to understand the priorities of your colleagues in other functions and focusing on synergies — in other words, using what we are calling an organizational materiality principle.

The ethical, sustainable businesses of the future will create and support a culture that empowers their employees and contributes to a more just and sustainable world.
Once you have used a materiality assessment to identify key priorities for your company, you can use this to design an internal engagement program focused on departments with the most potential influence, collaboration potential and relevant expertise. Applying stakeholder engagement best practice to your cross-functional work is essential. You won’t have the bandwidth to focus on everything, so align with those teams and departments that stand to benefit the most from collaboration and can have the greatest influence over the sustainability agenda.

2. Educate your colleagues about sustainability; but don’t forget to learn from them, too

Sustainability teams often see it as their mission to help raise internal awareness on key issues such as climate change and human rights. But if sustainability teams treat this as a one-way education process, they risk being deemed both preachy and insufficiently business-focused to drive change. It is critically important to understand the priorities, goals and success factors of the teams you wish to work with — and this will make you a far more effective and impactful expert resource across the business.

As one of our members told us, "We really saw the role of our team change over time. After years of effort and pushing information out to the business, our brands started to come to us for help and support. That’s how we knew we had gotten it right."

3. Recognize that governance matters, a lot

In 2018, many of the most pressing challenges facing organizations do not fit neatly into the remit of one particular department. At the same time, issues that once would have been dismissed as niche sustainability concerns are keeping the C-suite up at night. Lobbying and tax disclosure involve government affairs and finance, and they are also increasingly sustainability topics. Diversity and inclusion are front and center for your HR team and also high-priority sustainable business issues.

This means that accountability can become diffuse, and careful design of new governance structures is essential. Companies are experimenting with corporate responsibility committees at the board and management level to address these new and emerging challenges. However, care needs to be taken that these solutions do not replicate internal tensions and power imbalances, but instead provide clarity over who is responsible for what. Solid governance is underrated as a change lever, but is necessary to avoid "death by committee" and free up space for innovation and ambition.

4. Understand your corporate culture

Yet governance is not effective in a vacuum. Making a deliberate, considered effort to understand the culture of your organization will make you a much more effective change agent. Team dynamics, incentives and existing programs are all key considerations when driving sustainability and building companies with more coherent values and purpose. Sustainable companies do not just focus on responding to issues, but also on how they work and make decisions. 

Ultimately, the ability to successfully collaborate — both inside and outside your company walls — will be essential in your efforts to advance sustainable business in our rapidly changing world. We hope you find these guides useful in this endeavor and would be thrilled to hear from you about your experience applying them.

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