State of Green Business

Harness the Power of the Web for Stakeholder Dialogues

Harness the Power of the Web for Stakeholder Dialogues

Stakeholder engagement is now a key part of many public and private sector projects, particularly around the issue of sustainable development. The last few years have seen a massive shift in business communications as the competitive advantages of two-way dialogue between organizations and their stakeholders are being recognized and exploited. 

Despite the importance of engaging stakeholders from initial project development stages and the significant benefits of the internet in providing an accessible and flexible platform for such dialogue, many organizations are overlooking the opportunities of online stakeholder engagement as a way of moving forward on achieving corporate sustainability goals. While organizations have come under some political pressure over the past decade to strain towards sustainable activity, businesses are now facing increasing pressure from the media, consumers and the supply chain to go beyond one-way communication and reporting of sustainable activities and consider the views of their stakeholders in business decisions.

The current political climate has left the words "corporate responsibility" on everyone's lips and businesses have for some time now been aware of the marketing benefits to be gained by claiming the environmentally positive impacts of their products and actions.

However, whilst the importance of sustainable business practices is understood and the focus on sustainability is shifting beyond marketing, many are yet to fully realize the competitive advantages of engaging their stakeholders in their activities.

Why engage?

Stakeholders are invaluable for the success of business, not only because they include employees, suppliers and customers, but also because of the contribution they make to project and product development. The earlier stakeholders are involved in project development, the lower the risk of consumer rejection of the final product, the greater their sense of ownership and the greater their trust in the organization.

This element of trust is crucial for commercial success. Loyal customers, employees, suppliers, local authorities and communities are won through relationships built on two-way dialogue.

Furthermore, the engagement of stakeholders from the initial stages of projects may well drastically alter the project itself. Understanding the requirements and the opinions of stakeholders through effective two-way dialogue will affect the way products and processes are designed and carried out.

The specific knowledge and expertise that can be gleaned from stakeholders during these initial stages provide vital insights into markets, competitors and consumer needs that can improve organizational processes.

Why online?

The importance of online engagement is becoming increasingly apparent as more businesses are deploying the resources offered by the web in their communication strategies. One of the main benefits of the internet in stakeholder engagement is its continuous accessibility from anywhere at anytime.

Online engagement offers an opportunity to involve stakeholders who would normally opt out of face-to-face meetings for various reasons such as time constraints, accessibility or privacy. Businesses are no longer limited to organizing face-to-face meetings during the working day and stakeholders are able to offer their feedback whenever is convenient for them, making the consultation process simple and objective, which may generate a greater response rate.

The UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC) recently undertook its first member survey using the StakeholderTALK Report! online tool to better understand the issues of most importance to their members through quantifiable feedback. The comprehensive survey, designed and deployed by IMS Consulting, received an exceptional response rate of over 50% in two and a half weeks of being live.

Paul King, Chief Executive, commented: "This is a very encouraging result, as the survey was comprehensive and some of the questions fairly detailed. The main benefit of the StakeholderTALK project is that the results were quantifiable and they have given us the opportunity to shape our future activities based upon solid feedback from our stakeholders". Greater response rates and speed of deployment are crucial benefits of using web-based approaches to two-way dialogue over traditional face-to-face methods.

Building ongoing dialogue

The web also allows information to be communicated and delivered using a variety of formats, from video to text, and in numerous languages if necessary. The internet provides feedback and data gathered from online consultation that can be easily searched through and updated. Various methods of engagement, such as forums, surveys and news channels, can be used together to build a comprehensive understanding of stakeholder views.

This is especially crucial in facilitating ongoing communication as developments and changes in perspectives, opinions and circumstances can be taken into account. Both businesses and their stakeholders are able to keep abreast of the developments taking place within the project life cycle, helping to pave the way for long term two-way dialogue.

The Morgan Sindall Group has exploited the opportunities presented by the web in creating ongoing dialogue through their sustainability microsite, where their stakeholders are able to keep up to date with the Group's policy developments, sustainability news and searchable evidence base of case studies. The ability to search through and update quantitative and qualitative data from two-way dialogue is particularly important for building ongoing engagement in public sector projects.

Rather than providing a static snapshot of opinion, the web enables organizations and local authorities to establish long-term relationships with stakeholders by the continuous gathering and measuring of feedback as it develops over time.

Another unique benefit of using the web to facilitate stakeholder engagement is its ability to measure the data and information that is gathered. Online stakeholder engagement hubs offer businesses the advantages of qualitative information coupled with easily quantifiable results. Organizations are able to measure the number of people who have received information and engaged with it.

It is also possible to gather data on traffic generated by communication and to react to it in a timely manner, ensuring that decisions are based on accurate and up to date information and communication. Best practice is built on in-depth understanding of stakeholder opinion and businesses are beginning to appreciate the value of measuring feedback from corporate communications.

Having acknowledged the importance of receiving such validation of sustainability objectives from key stakeholders, The Waste Recycling Group (WRG) has recently produced its CSR report online on a searchable and accessible microsite, using the StakeholderTALK toolkit. Prior to producing the report, WRG undertook an online survey which allowed stakeholders to provide vital feedback, validating the company's sustainability objectives. This web-based approach of validation and publication is starting to become recognized as a more effective means of communicating with multiple audiences than conventional hardcopy.

The future of engagement

The internet is no longer limited to providing one-way communication from businesses to stakeholders. The challenge for organizations now is to exploit the opportunities offered by the web in purposefully building dialogue that goes beyond corporate communication of sustainability objectives.

Many are already making use of various online engagement tools such as comprehensive surveys, reports, case study engines and communication hubs to develop a full consultation process, enabling flexible and effective two-way dialogue with their key stakeholders. An engagement strategy that takes stakeholder opinions, views and feedback into consideration in business operations and communications will put best practice at the center of the organization.

The importance of stakeholder engagement has long been recognized by businesses that are serious about implementing their sustainability strategies, especially in the reporting of their activities and sustainability goals. While this continues to be important, it is the validation of such communication and reporting that is leading the way into the future. Online tools such as StakeholderTALK (www.imsplc.com/stakeholdertalk) are offering powerful alternatives to conventional face-to-face engagement methods, helping businesses to establish ongoing two-way dialogue with their key stakeholders.

Considering how vital stakeholders are in building corporate reputation, project development and success, along with the evident benefits of using online communication tools, businesses that use the web to design and develop stakeholder dialogue will find themselves deriving significant competitive advantages over their peers as the pressure for sustainable development mounts.

Erika Roshdi specializes in Sustainability Communications at IMS Consulting. The company develops and delivers two way, online stakeholder dialogue, engagement and communications platforms. www.imsplc.com.

Photo CC-licensed by Foxtongue.

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