Users and uses: what the GRI will discover about digital transformation

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Three years ago, I was lamenting the lack of talk of digital and social at the last Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) conference sustainability reporting.

 

With all the talk of how engagement was supposed to become the key for determining the relevance of issues to different companies, stakeholders and contexts, it was surprising to me that so few made the connection with the way technology is transforming our system of relationships. Sadly, engagement has turned out to be principally carried out inside companies and in low-tech ways – interviews, surveys, focus groups, workshops. Connecting to a wider conversation is rare.

In the past three days that I have attended the GRI’s 5th gathering in Amsterdam, however, questions about the consumption of sustainability information have been raised in session after session, from a broad range of speakers. The release of the 4th generation of sustainability reporting in 2013 seems to have brought a maturity to the GRI framework: “There will be no GRI-5!” participants were told this week.

Enough guidelines: let’s set the data free!

 

Focus is turning instead to how sustainability information (loosely summed up by the GRI as “data”) could be used for “empowering sustainable decisions”. To respond to this, there is a drive to understand how technology can enable that process. The GRI’s CEO, Michael Meehan, insists that companies are already producing plenty of data but that information needs to be “liberated” from the restrictions of PDFs and join the “vast sea” of big data in circulation.

 

“It’s important to make sure sustainability data is part of the flow,” Meehan enthused in one session. We have to “get it out of where it is today.” Any discussion of how exactly this data might be useful and to whom is a “secondary” issue, he added.

 

To this end, the GRI is even launching a Digital Reporting Alliance, partly in response to a call for the creation of “a public and open global repository of public sustainability data”. (It’s important to note, though, that a poll among participants at the GRI conference revealed that the biggest barriers to unlocking the potential of sustainability data are a lack of “consistency and comparability” alongside the “resources required to collect information.”)

 


 

The missing link

 

And yet the conference highlighted a void in understanding of what digital transformation will mean for sustainability reporting, how it is changing relations between the various actors in the field and where its effect will be most relevant.

 

For sure, a technology discussion is important in terms of making information digitally accessible. But digital disruption is above all a question of how relationships are transformed and boundaries break down. A discussion about the uses of information puts the focus on the users of information: from the capital markets (seeming very dear to the GRI these days) to civil society.

 

Our work in this space has revealed that digital has already led to a fragmentation of sustainability reporting and its blurring with more informal communication modes. It has also highlighted the resources needed to keep up with digital’s 24/7 pace. Above all, digital puts the focus squarely on the user – the person – and requires a kind of human-centred approach that seems sorely missing in the GRI outlook.

 

It’s telling that the one person who put it best at the GRI conference was not from business or the markets: Monique van Zijl, campaign manager of Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign , stressed the need for greater awareness of the way information and relations work in a world of “hyper-connectivity and real-time sharing.”
 

Perhaps it comes down to a topic we have seen before in the corporate world: a lack of digital literacy and understanding of the needs of the people who make up our various stakeholder categories. To judge from the tone of comments in Amsterdam this week, there is a great desire to understand how to join the dots and to make sense of sustainability in the wider world.

 

Join us in understanding digital better

 

To help raise awareness of these issues, Lundquist has run the CSR Online Awards since 2007 as a way to investigate how digital is changing the nature of stakeholder relationships and our expectations about transparency and sustainability. We’re currently reaching out to sustainability professionals, experts and stakeholders to find out the current state of digital in an age of materiality. To find out more, see our survey.

 

For more publications on this topic, follow James Osborne on LinkedIn.


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