The Secret to Moving Beyond Your CSR Report

The Secret to Moving Beyond Your CSR Report

[Editor's Note: This the second post in a three-part series about how corporate transparency can reshape business. Part I details the value of transparency as an investment. Part III, focuses on the unintended consequences of increased corporate transparency.]

More than a few executives at Toyota are wringing their hands, wondering how a name associated with quality and control is now found in the same sentence as "congressional hearing," "subpoena” and "withholding evidence.”

Their plight has not gone unnoticed at other companies.

So if a CFO does step forward and commit just 10 percent of the cost of a Super Bowl advertisement (a 30-second spot cost about $2.4 million this year) to improve transparency in her company, what does that even mean?

It means first figuring out what you know, and what you need to know, while not getting stuck in a Donald Rumsfeld vortex of circular referencing. Sure, you currently know enough to run a good business and meet reporting requirements, but that is no longer sufficient for your license to operate.

{related_content}For many businesses, your license is now provided more so by customers than governments. And the one-way mirror that is the Internet, a manic news cycle and a global, networked consumer base can make renewing that license more difficult by the day. Internal, detailed knowledge of the inner plumbing of your company is an asset with a value rivaling most on your balance sheet.

Knowing requires people, typically from multiple departments, a wall-sized map of the world and posters of your value chain and product lines. Complex databases can come later. A quick inventory will highlight current success meeting federal or private regulation, regional initiatives detailing supplier or product data, and third party certifications and partnerships.

What you need to know is where the gaps are -- opaque portions of your supply chain, new businesses or acquisitions, and operations in areas where governance takes a back seat to survival.

If the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration missed the beat on Toyota, and the SEC could not spot the sun through a telescope at noon, don't expect underpaid bureaucrats in small, one-party "democracies" to call out your weakest link.

The good news is you do not have to know everything before you open up -- just being clear about where you stand helps.

The bad news is you do need to have a strategy. It is not worth sharing for sharing's sake.

Why are you opening your mouth: To enhance your reputation, differentiate a product or mobilize your employees? Who cares? Your customers, regulators, investors, employees or activists? What do they care about? GHG emissions 10 percent below 2000 levels, products phthalate and PVC free, or employees receiving a living wage?

The medium is not the message, but it is close. How are you going to convey what matters? Match the communications channel and the content to the audience. You would not send a "100% organic" tag to the EPA as proof of reduced nutrient run-off, so why try to staple your sustainability report to a T-shirt, which is the direction we are heading as we try to tell customers more and more about what we are doing with less.

Your sustainability report is critical, but it should be your encyclopedic record of strengths, weaknesses, and achievements for your narrowest, most discerning audience, not your beacon of transparency for who you are and who you want to be.

Transparency is a skill, part art, part science, that is built on assets, including people and knowledge. You don't have to get it perfect to get it right, but you need to make a conscious effort to develop that skill. After all, Apolo Ohno became a great speed skater only after he first learned how to skate on ice, and decided it was something worth practicing. He strives for perfection, but the rest of us can focus on staying upright and then going for bronze.

Stephen Linaweaver is an associate principal at GreenOrder, an LRN company. GreenOrder is a strategy and management consulting firm that helps companies achieve competitive advantage through environmental innovation.

Photo illustration background image CC licensed by Flickr user paul (dex) busy @ work.