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How Vancity crowdsourced engagement and accountability

Canada’s largest credit union used an interactive social media platform to connect with multiple stakeholders and prioritize its actions.

Consider the complexity of decisions faced by today’s organization: Choosing what to include in new or existing services or products; resolving expectations of a wide array of stakeholders; selecting optimal employee-benefit packages; nit-picking which projects to focus in for long-term prosperity. These decisions matter, and the people they involve matter, too: Engaged stakeholders are key for short and long-lasting business success.

Real-time interactions

Sustainability teams often have gone used standard methods such as online surveys, market research, Big Data and in-depth consultations. While these methods offer valuable results, there always seems to be a trade-off — waiting for a long time and paying top dollar for meaningful insight or settling for quick but inconclusive, disjointed and rather impersonal insights. And they don’t usually foster spaces that simultaneously allow for meaningful interaction and actionable insight.

Few organizations truly have caught up with the interactive social media revolution that has been expanding exponentially since the arrival of the Web 2.0 — a revolution that continues to transform how organizations and their stakeholders get the most from each other. Moving away from passivity and from one-way and opaque inputs, the Internet’s evolution has led to real-time interactions that foster mutuality and transparency. “Likes” and “comments” have become the flavors of the day (especially now that The Economist has identified Facebook users as the third largest population in the world).

It thus comes as no surprise that, according to Weber Shandwick/KRC Research, already 44 percent of sustainability managers are using crowdsourcing to advance their objectives.

Making Good Money — in old (and new) ways

Canada’s largest credit union and top corporate citizen is ahead of this game. Wanting to obtain deeper insights, Vancity has set itself to find methods to better achieve its social, economic and environmental goals. Using the services of my employer, award-winning SaaS group-wisdom platform Ethelo, the credit union giant was able to streamline a 300-member consultation process arising from several community advisory committees.

One was the Youth Advisory Committee, a group established in 2014 to generate new ideas for ways in which Vancity could advance its Make Good Money efforts. The focus was on local and organic food, social investment, affordable housing and supporting youth, among others. But consider the challenge: After running several world-café style focus groups, 42 sustainable initiatives were identified and discussed. In what ways could the possibilities be distilled and short-listed, narrowing down on scenarios that would maximize unity and buy-in among a wide array of expectations? And given the difficulty of engaging all people in dynamic conversation, how to respond to many voices — all at once?

Wired for smallness and proximity

Neurologists tell us that we are still catching up with the fact that our brains slowly have evolved to maintain interactions with a rather small bunch of people. Quite literally, our neurological configuration has wired us for smallness.

In today’s hyperglobalized community, however, the close bond between individuals has been stretched to the breaking point, creating increasing gaps of relational distance. As power accrues to the top, decisions tend to become increasingly bureaucratic and centralized. And even the ballot system also has come with its own set of limitations: Ticking a checkbox allows for little, if any, real-time interaction — let alone for fostering dialogue or consensus.

The distance between decision-makers, team-members and customers is, quite literally, kilometric. A T-shirt sewn in Bangladesh can be designed in Paris and accounted for in New York. And while digital technology has allowed space for surveys, emails and blogging forums, the gigantic scale organizations is such that the consultation process often can be costly, opaque, slow or disjointed. It’s close to impossible to be up close and personal with hundreds or thousands of people, all at once.

Streamlining accountability & engagement, a là 2.0

Similar to Unilever’s 24-hour-continuous-discussion Sustainable Living Lab, in embracing the capabilities of the aforementioned interactive technology Vancity also has responded proactively to this challenge. During its community consultations, participants voted, ranked issues and collaborated dynamically on the online platform. Then, incorporating sustainability criteria while blending the power of math with human sentiment, Ethelo’s platform allowed the committees to easily prioritize the initiatives and identify those that received the most stakeholder support.

Such findings, along with the consolidated online dialogues, were then presented to the senior management team to enhance the strategic planning process. “This new technology helps us accelerate the conversation in real-time,” said Elisabeth Geller, manager of community investment, “but it’s also allowing us to get deep and robust insight that I’m not sure how we could capture otherwise.”

Clear about the advantages of such platforms, CSR International founder Wayne Visser is convinced that the time is ripe for embedding “crowd-storming” into a company’s DNA. The Web’s evolution is now enabling the merging of mathematical algorithms for problem-solving with fast but nuanced strategies that more fully capture the will and the complex intelligence of groups. “Broadcast is out; dialogue in,” Visser affirmed.

To be sure, the ever-new emerging technologies never will replace face-to-face human interactions. Nor will the voice of the crowds supercede those with the expertise to make technical decisions.

The Web, however, certainly can assist in reversing at least some of these difficulties characteristic of today’s organizational gigantism. We all flourish when our voices are heard and when we have a stake in what goes on around us — two key qualities identified by the Relationships Foundation, a U.K.-based think-tank advancing interpersonal well-being in contemporary society. When the “top” and the “bottom” come together around deeper forms of dialogue, the relational distance is shortened, making it easier for people to thrive. And when people thrive, organizations thrive too.

Online technologies, with a more humane face

The Internet has flattened access to information, and more than ever outraged customers and disengaged employees quickly will find more attractive value offerings elsewhere. Alternatively, stakeholders could be seen as friends, not foes.

For the first time in history, interactive technologies have opened the possibility of creating complementary modes of more personalized human interaction. And as collaborative online forums continue on the rise, organizations more effectively can collect and coordinate the nuanced complexity that often characterizes the will and insights of large groups. The age of information and competition has given way to the age of interaction and collaboration.

Considering people’s voices in a deeper way is now easier than ever, enabling companies to make insightful decisions that minimize resistance and increase stakeholder buy-in. According to Geller, “As opposed to all people shouting at once in a social media megaphone, the powerful thing about this new platform is its capacity to build on people’s ideas and create group cohesion through dialogue and conversation.”

Perhaps therein lays a way for continuing to overcome the barrier of stakeholder isolation and relational distance. And perhaps there, also, lays a new secret to deeper forms of interpersonal and organizational thriving, enabling companies to resolve complex problems by involving big groups of people.

Reacting to the impersonal scale of the modern firm, German economist E.F. Schumacher once argued that “small is beautiful,” advocating for what he called “intermediate technologies.” By opting for contemporary variations of these, today’s organizations certainly can keep things on a more up-close and personal scale. And so given these recent potentialities of the Web, one suspects that Schumacher would have given his kudos to these far-reaching and yet personalized innovations because, having put on a more humane face, these technologies, in fact, can be beautiful too.

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