More reflections on blogging

I have been blogging now, consistently for most of this year. I am starting to see the fruits of my labour as the search engines seem now to have discovered my blog.

Blogging as exploration and inquiry

I have been a student for most of my life, completing my formal education just a few years ago. Some of my experiences as a student were intense learning experiences, and most of what I learned was relevant. Blogging has been at least as intense as any formal learning. Why is this so?

While blogging, the central themes of stakeholder engagement and sustainability dominate, but I reference back to other disciplines that underpin them, such as communication, organisational learning and leadership, and from this mix, explore the world laterally and align areas of inquiry with these central themes and disciplines. For me, it has created intellectual discipline and a space for creativity that has enabled the generation of new ideas. The Communication Spectrum is a good example of the fruit of this process. I also enjoyed exploration of relevant “big picture” stuff, such as The End of Empires.

I am a Tom Peters fan. He has sold millions of books and started blogging in August 2006. In this video with Seth Godin he raves (as only Tom can rave) about blogging:

No single thing in the past 15 years professionally, has been more important than blogging. It has changed my life; It has changed my perspective; It has changed my intellectual outlook; It has changed my emotional outlook… and its the best damn marketing tool I have ever had.

While I am yet to harvest the benefits of marketing, I thoroughly endorse Tom’s comments.

Finding voice

In the same video, Seth Godin identifies blogging as a “free micro-publishing tool” and stresses its importance as a platform for people to express their voice and join conversations. Thus blogging is an essential engagement tool.

Given blogging’s potential to support intellectual inquiry and to provide a ubiquitous platform for voice, imagine the impact it will have on our world as it becomes more common. I believe it will, alongside a host of other democratising influences, provide great impetus for beneficial social change and the development of more cohesive communities.

If you lead an organisation, or are in an influential senior position, I hope you are blogging – it can only improve engagement.

 

 

Leadership for our fragile oasis

Last week the NASA astronaut Ron Garan, and the great Muhammad Yunus addressed the Global Social Business Summit. They conveyed a similar message, but from totally different perspectives. Ron Garan is one of those elite who have seen the planet from the outside, and as with several of his peers, the experience had a transformational impact. They see things from a new perspective – the “orbital perspective”. Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to walk in space expressed it this way:

When in orbit, one thinks of the whole of the earth rather than one’s country, as one’s home.

At the conclusion of his talk, Ron Garan presented a spectacular video of the return to earth of his spacecraft, Soyez TMA-21 in September this year. Here is a short segment from YouTube. (The music is Peter Gabriel’s Down to Earth).

Soyez TMA-21 re-entry 

Muhummad Yunus connected back to Ron’s talk beautifully stating how it is an “unfortunate thing that we can’t keep this home as a home for a happy family”. He then spoke about the worm’s eye perspective. When he returned to Bangladesh from study in the United States, his country was experiencing warfare and famine. He found his economic theories hollow and impotent in the face of human tragedy. When he went to the neighbouring village he learned about life from the ground level – the worm’s eye view. Here he is explaining the concept.

The bigger you grow – the more distant you get away from the ground level.

Muhammad Yunus’s strength is his ability to operate from both perspectives.

Following Ron Garan’s space experiences he has dedicated his efforts to improving life back here on earth. He is a member of Engineers Without Borders, the founder of both the Manna Energy Foundation and Fragile Oasis.

Although Ron Garan adopted the posture of a student before the master (Muhammad Yunus), both men epitomise the quality of leadership required for our “fragile oasis”.

The higher ambition leader

On reading Harvard Business Review’s September 2011 article, The Higher Ambition Leader, I am struck with the parallels to the concepts championed by Muhammad Yunus and Ron Garan. The article extols the leadership by CEOs of companies such as Standard Chartered, an international bank. The bank’s vision is to be “the world’s best international bank” by “combining global reach with deep local knowledge to become the ‘right partner’ for its customers”.

The article is centred on studies of three companies whose CEOs manifest higher ambition:

to create long-term economic value, generate wider benefits for society, and build robust social capital within their organizations all at once.

These lofty ideals are achieved through creating powerful strategic visions, world class levels of engagement and a constant leadership focus on achieving the strategy.

The link to engagement

The examples of Ron Garan and Muhammad Yunus, alongside the three companies featured in the HBR article illustrate the importance of engagement. Campbell Soup’s CEO “relentlessly drove progress on two measures: total shareholder returns and the level of employee engagement”. Employee engagement levels at Campbell Soup exceeded Gallup’s benchmark of 10:1 for world-class engagement. By 2010 the company achieved “a ratio of 17 engaged employees for every actively disengaged one”. Is it a coincidence that, for the six years up to 2010 Campbell Soup achieved a cumulative total shareholder return of 64% (S&P packaged food index return is 38% and the S&P 500 return is 13%)? I don’t think so.

The leadership described here is becoming the default standard of leadership. We need leaders with both the worm’s eye view and the orbital perspective – those who can focus on the needs of their communities and companies, while also committing to sustaining our fragile oasis and its communities.

Pepsico, Ethiopia and chickpeas – a win-win-win

Pepsico are engaging with partners and the Ethiopian Government in an initiative to improve chickpea production. Chickpeas are an ideal crop – they grow well in Ethiopia, the have great nutritional values, including high protein and, being a legume, help build soil fertility.

Chickpeas – image credit and history of human use

The plight of the poor in Ethiopa rarely comes to our attention – it has to compete with our fixation on the economy and other more pressing news. Ethiopia is currently experiencing another drought and famine. And Ethopian resources are further stretched as refugees continue to flood in from its drought and war afflicted neighbour, Somalia,

Pepsico, in partnership with USAID, and the UN World Food Programme, will work with 10,000 farmers in Ethiopia to help them reap a twofold increase in sustainable chickpea production using irrigation and advanced agricultural practices. Other partners include the Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The increased volume of chickpeas will have three markets:

  • the World Food Programme will produce a locally sourced nutrient-rich, ready-to-use supplementary food to address malnutrition initially targeting 40,000 Ethiopian children
  • local commercial uses in Ethiopia
  • expansion of Pepsico’s hummus offerings.

This is a great example of the good that companies such as Pepsico can generate as they build their own internal awareness of the plight of the world and the interconnectedness of the systems that sustain us. The cynical might deny the element of altruism, that I believe, is undeniably manifest in Pepsico’s thinking. (This earlier post discusses altruism as a sustainability driver).

“With the ingenuity, power and reach of the private sector, we can make great strides in ending the malnutrition and hunger that is threatening the lives of millions,” said Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of WFP. “The world knows how to prevent malnutrition. The hunger we are witnessing today in the Horn of Africa is preventable with local solutions that support small farmers in being part of the solution. Enterprise EthioPEA will change the lives of tens of thousands of children and will chart the course for future partnerships to help stamp out hunger around the globe.” (from the Pepsico website)

Among the evidence of Pepsico’s intent is the partners it chooses to work with, and the people it employs to champion such projects. Here is a video featuring Derek Yach, the current the Senior Vice President, Global Health and Agricultural Policy, PepsiCo Inc. He was previously the Professor of Global Health at Yale School of Public Health, and Executive Director of the Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health cluster at the World Health Organization (WHO). In the video he elaborates on the project.

Pepsico are also aware of the health risks that many of their products pose back home. Their 2010 sustainability report includes goals to reduce the quantities of saturated fat, sugar and sodium in their products.

from the Pepsico Sustainability Report

Derek Yachs believes that the future of Africa depends initially on more effective and sustainable agriculture. This quality of thinking and effective engagement with partners will see corporates such as Pepsico transform the global economy and society.

Engaging stories: Fairtrade cotton

I mostly drink Fairtrade coffee, sometimes eat Fairtrade chocolate, but must confess, I don’t wear Fairtrade cotton. That will change now that I am reading Harriet Lamb’s Fighting the Banana Wars and Other Fairtrade Battles.

Struggling to stay above the poverty line

Harriet Lamb tells of cotton grower’s subsistence existence in Africa, where cotton supports about 10 million people. For countries such as Burkina Faso, cotton is the major export. Typically the growers live in villages that often don’t have direct access to drinking water, education and healthcare facilities – things we take for granted in the West.

African and other third-world cotton growers are enmeshed in the fabric of global trading dynamics. If they only had to contend with the vagaries of the weather and nature, and even the free market, they might be okay, but their problems are compounded by subsidies that wealthy countries pay their cotton growers. The U.S. Government subsidises their own cotton growers in response to falling cotton prices. When U.S. subsidies increased in 2001, U.S. growers responded by growing more cotton. Not, surprisingly, increased production saw the global price fall further. In 2005, the U.S. Government spent $4.7 billion on cotton subsidies, more than it spent on aid to Africa.

We also have spare a thought for the U.S. taxpayer here. The Government’s subsidies distort the market and impoverish parts of Africa, impelling Western governments to provide aid – so the U.S. taxpayer pays twice – through cotton subsidies and through aid. And it is even more crazy when the US subsidises Brazilian cotton farmers as part of a free trade deal. Unfortunately the Africans don’t have a free trade deal! The Fairtrade story, teaches us that aid is less necessary when factors influencing global markets are more carefully managed for all stakeholders.

Minimum prices

Fairtrade’s main mechanism for creating better returns for growers is a minimum price. This provides a buffer for growers and with the troughs in the market cycles eliminated, growers and their communities get the cash they need to raise living standards. Typically communities will invest additional income into clean and local water supplies and education.

As important as the material improvements, is the contribution the Fairtrade ethos brings to village life. For example, Fairtrade work to raise the status of women, through the agency of additional income and education. This video about Fairtrade cotton in Cameroon features the benefits to women. One of the women outlines the benefits:

The Fairtrade standards insist that women are in the group. The men had difficulty accepting this at first but slowly they realised that it could work. And now they own their own land… they are independent. They work their land, they go and receive their money alongside the men and this motivates others to get involved as well.

Commodity price increases

Recent spikes in commodity prices around the world have ameliorated the distortions created by subsidies. Demand for cotton has increased, as more people join the middle class, cotton production decreases and discerning consumers learn to favour natural textiles. This chart from the Index Mundi website, show the cotton price over the last fifteen years, revealing the sharp recent spike.

What I don’t know, is the impact this spike has had on third world growers. When commodity prices rise, growers don’t necessarily benefit. Has Fairtrade been able to ensure a fair share of the benefits get to those that need it most? And does it make you feel better about paying more money for a pair of jeans?

Building capacity for employee engagement

The great thing about building engagement capability is the broad range of benefits. Engagement reshapes the nature of the relationship the organisation has with its stakeholders, be they customers, suppliers, owners, employees or the community. Reshaping the relationship with employees appears to have significant potential.

It doesn’t take long to find a damming array of reports revealing that, in most cases, employee engagement is woeful. Without labouring the point, here are some examples:

Employee engagement by region, from the
2011 BlessingWhite Employee Engagement Report 

The good news is that there appears plenty of scope to improve engagement. The even better news is, that the capabilities required to improve engagement with employees will be beneficial in other stakeholder relationships.

I may be biased, but engagement capability needs to be at the epicentre of organisational development.

Think of it this way; What action would you take if only a third of your vehicle fleet operated reliably, or your core systems rarely achieved their potential? I am sure you would focus your attention on it. So why is it that many organisations are unable to more fully engage their employees?

Engagement capabilities

Some organisations survey employees to learn more about engagement, but these surveys can actually further erode engagement if employees perceive that there is no follow up. Further analysis is probably not useful. Fortunately, the essence of engagement is in one-to-one relationships between people, and therefore capability for engagement can only be enhanced when individuals work on their engagement skills and develop those aspects of character that support engagement. These include integrity and trust. The Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann UK Survey found a clear deficit of these qualities where there was poor engagement.

The engagement spiral

The popular TV series ‘Undercover Boss” week after week demonstrates what happens when company leaders take time to get to know their employees. Typically their employees respond strongly when their boss acknowledges the effort they invest in the company. And as they get to know something of the private lives of their employees, empathy increases.

Of course organisational leaders do not have the time to engage with all employees, but all employees should have the opportunity to engage with someone with a leadership role. A sense of belonging and connection with the wider social group, including its leaders, is a fundamental human drive.

Developing engagement capability

The skills of engagement are simply communication skills, including listening, acknowledging and empathy. These are supported by qualities of character such as integrity and trust. Formally, these skills can be fostered in organisational development programmes in communication, leadership, change and organisational learning. And given the critical role that engagement has in 21st century organisations, they must be regarded as core skills for performance management purposes.

In earlier series of posts I identified engagement as one segment of the communication spectrum. Understanding the distinctive nature of engagement helps us to be more discerning about how we communicate, and helps us aspire to higher expressions of communication.

The tools needed to improve engagement are simple and close at hand. There are no quick fixes – the journey to improving engagement requires constant vigilance, but the returns promise to be significant.  Understanding the communication spectrum is a good place to start.

More engagement lessons from the Canterbury earthquakes

Recently, John Hamilton, the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management, New Zealand, spoke about the Canterbury earthquakes at the National Board meeting of Neighbourhood Support.

Resilience and personal fortitude

John was effusive in his praise for the “personal fortitude” of Cantabrians and the resilience of their communities. Their response has negated the myth of weak neighbourhood spirit prevalent in pre-quake discourse. The tragic impacts of the earthquakes have strengthened community engagement and communication.

the Student Volunteer Army in action in Christchurch

In immediate response to the quakes, Christchurch citizens checked on their neighbours. In the following days and weeks, community groups such as the student army arose and self-organised to check on people’s well-being and remove the liquefaction flooding streets and properties (see an earlier post). Unlike many overseas disaster scenes, Christchurch people used emergency accommodation for just a few days and quickly returned to damaged homes (where that was safe). Most of the fatalities occurred in the CBD, but thankfully residential buildings performed well and no lives were lost in residential building collapses. And, according to John “schools did a fantastic job” – no school children lost their lives.

Situational awareness

But the people of Christchurch and Canterbury weren’t anticipating an earthquake, and may not have been as well prepared as they could have been. The authorities found it difficult to get timely and accurate intelligence about immediate impacts and particularly in suburban areas. Effective community networks established before any disaster help the authorities gain situational awareness and better target response actions.

John believes that Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, has heeded lessons from Christchurch and is improving community preparedness. Wellington sits on a major fault line and people have been anticipating “the big one” for decades. Wellington civic leaders have engaged at community level to build emergency response capacity. Should a big earthquake occur, Wellington’s strong community infrastructure should  enable a good response.

Neighbourhood Support’s role

Community groups such as neighbourhood support play an important role in fostering community engagement. Neighbourhood Support was originally set up to improve security and reduce crime in neighbourhoods. This necessary, but reactive role, is dramatically enhanced by the more pro-active community engagement role – where people are encouraged to get to know their neighbours. Thus resilience is built into communities as people learn (or relearn) to engage with neighbours. Resilient communities are better placed to respond to destructive events, whether they be natural or man-made. And on the positive site, increased neighbourhood engagement opens up opportunities for an enriched social life and greater prosperity through community initiatives.

If you want more information about neighbourhood support, or would like to form a neighbourhood support group check out the Neighbourhood Support New Zealand website. Please comment – I would be interested to know about similar initiatives in other countries.

image credit: http://iprepared.blogspot.com/2011/02/helping-each-other.html

Engagement stories – back yard angels

Di Celliers was concerned about the increasing demand on food banks to feed the poor. She was also aware that a lot of fruit goes to waste in back yards. She drew on her social and church networks and workmates at the ASB bank to inspire and mobilise people to pick fruit in backyards.

In a little over a month, Di’s initiative has spread across Auckland and the idea has been picked up in other regions in New Zealand. Auckland City Mission now collect the fruit weekly and distributes the fruit to 70 foodbanks.

Community Fruit Harvesting now has a Facebook presence and a website is hopefully on its way.  The Facebook page is a great example of community engagement and social networking’s capability to connect people in a cause. You can hear Di talking about the initiative on National Radio. Here’s Di picking citrus.

Another Auckland initiative is ooooby.org, (Out of our own back yards). It has been set up as a social business that harvests produce grown in backyards, micro growers and from local farms. Customers sign up for a $27.90 weekly box of fruit and veges.

These initiatives are inspiring steps to a more sustainable means of food production and supply. The benefits include providing free or inexpensive, nutritious food, building community bonds through engagement and volunteering and providing micro-enterprise opportunities.

Here is Muhammad Yunus explaining the social business concept.

Images used by permission of Di Celliers

Engaging stories: rebuilding Christchurch

The City of Christchurch, New Zealand was devastated by a series of earthquakes. The largest, on the 4 September 2010 wrecked havoc in the central city, but the second quake on 22 February killed 181 people and all but destroyed the central city. The response of the people of Christchurch is an inspiring engagement story. On 11 August, the Christchurch City Council released it draft Central City Plan.  The plan was immediately received with acclaim.

From an engagement perspective, the plan embodies three foundational strengths:

  • inspirational leadership
  • inclusion of the indigenous Ngāi Tahu
  • comprehensive public participation and community engagement

 Inspirational Leadership

From the day of the first quake, the indefatigable Mayor, Bob Parker fronted up and communicated clearly, exuding a aura of compassion and hope. As in the image below, he was often seen on camera with a person translating his words into sign language, an unspoken symbol of inclusion. When the Council released the draft plan there appeared to be an evident sense of celebration and unity in the council – not that common in local body politics.

 Inclusion of the tangata whenua

The Mäori tribe Ngāi Tahu are the indigenous people of the Canterbury region. In formal occasions, it is common for Mäori to acknowledge tipuna (ancestors) and those who have died. The draft plan beautifully incorporates words authored by Ngai Tahu to set an appropriate context for the plan. Here is the English translation:

This mihi is given by the Ngāi Tahu Rūnanga – Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri- to acknowledge and respect the people who have been lost and those whose hearts are grieving them, and the sorrow of this .  It also acknowledges the losses and pain of all people in Christchurch and Canterbury who have suffered as a result of the earthquakes.  Ngāi Tahu recognise their atua/god Rūaumoko as having pulled his umbilical cord and caused so much to break, including land from the mountains to the sea.  While acknowledging the pain, Ngāi Tahu see us uniting us as one people – the survivors (morehu) of Christchurch and Canterbury.  The mihi is a call to Christchurch to rise up, and together to rebuild Christchurch brighter and better.

Public participation – share an idea

Following the second quake, the City Council launched Share an Idea, a public engagement campaign to lay the foundations for the rebuild. In six weeks, the website, www.shareanidea.org.nz generated over 58,000 visits. Ideas were also harvested through facebook and twitter. Virtual engagement was complimented by a two-day community expo (attended by over 10,000 residents) and a series of public workshops. These are two of the larger examples of over 100 stakeholder meetings. (See the draft plan for more detail of engagement).

A total of 106,000 ideas were shared during the six week campaign – that is one idea from every 2.2 residents. Share an Idea generated a level of community involvement that has never been seen before in New Zealand.

The fruit of the engagement process

The thousands of ideas clustered into 5 themes:

  • green city
  • market city
  • city life
  • distinctive city
  • transport choice

The plan includes contributor’s comments to directly link the ideas generated to the completed draft plan (click on the thumbnail for a larger image).

Mayor Bob Parker described the new Christchurch as “a safe, sustainable, green, hi-tech, low-rise city in a garden”.

Out of adversity comes an unprecedented opportunity. We are embarking together on one of the most exciting projects ever presented to a community in New Zealand, perhaps the world…This is our city, it will rise again

Bob Parker

This is just a taste of a truly inspirational document. Anyone interested in stakeholder engagement, community participation or organisational development will benefit from a closer look.

Stakeholder engagement pays!

This blog positions stakeholder engagement at the leading edge of sustainability and also, as a core process underpinning a superior business model is transforming older, extractive and exploitative models. However, it is also great to have evidence that stakeholder engagement supports financial sustainability in addition to environmental and social sustainability.

Witold Henisz led a major Wharton School research project to deliver such evidence summarised in Spinning Gold: The Financial Returns to External Stakeholder Engagement. Here is the abstract from their document:

We provide direct empirical evidence in support of instrumental stakeholder theory‘s argument that increasing cooperation and reducing conflict with stakeholders enhances the financial valuation of a firm holding constant the objective valuation of the physical assets under its control. We undertake this analysis using panel data on 26 gold mines owned by 19 publicly traded firms over the period 1993-2008. We code over 50,000 stakeholder events from media reports to develop an index of the degree of stakeholder cooperation or conflict for these mines. By incorporating this index in a market capitalization analysis, we reduce the discount placed by financial markets on the net present value of the gold controlled by these firms from 72 to between 33 and 12 percent.

My (limited) understanding is that the reduction in net present value is increased significantly when stakeholder co-operation is low and stakeholder conflict is high. Here is a video explanation of net present value.

Apart from the great result, what impresses here is the size of the study and the stunningly positive result for stakeholder engagement. Notable too, is the assertion that mining companies that were once known for a myopic short-term view, are now “global leaders in the implementation of stakeholder engagement”.  A participant in the research commented:

It used to be the case that the value of a gold mine was based on three variables: the amount of gold in the ground, the cost of extraction, and the world price of gold. Today, I can show you two mines identical on these three variables that differ in their valuation by an order of magnitude. Why? Because one has local support and the other doesn‘t. (Yani Roditis, COO Gabriel Resources, interview by authors)

The researchers position the two factors of high stakeholder co-operation and low stakeholder conflict as essential to building the implicit or explicit social license to operate. Investing in positive stakeholder relations builds both social and political capital.

The nature of the research confines analysis of the benefits of stakeholder engagement to financial factors and shareholder value. As such it removes the tension between proponents of shareholder value, such as Milton Friedman and the broader stakeholder theory such as Edward Freeman.

Broader stakeholder benefits

In addition to the financial benefits of effective stakeholder engagement, there are other less tangible and quantifiable benefits. As more businesses learn to take a less extractive stance and engage more, the benefits of greater social capital compound. Trust is built and fractured communities develop more cohesion. If the ethos of external engagement of these mining companies becomes culturally embedded throughout the organisation, local people employed in mining operations, should also benefit from a more engaging workplace. Ideally these cultural practices become more manifest and normalised in worker’s families and the wider community. How is this quantified?

This landmark research in sustainability provides much-needed hard data to demonstrate the benefits of stakeholder engagement. One disappointment is the title – associating the PR metaphor of “spin” is unfortunate, as effective stakeholder engagement is the antithesis of spin. Ideally engagement is based on authentic and transparent communication rather than the more manipulative intention of spin. But hats off to Witold Henisz and his team for a superb research contribution.

Sustainability leadership report

How do you know if a company is green-washing, or over-promoting its sustainability performance? Brand Logic’s recently released Sustainability Leadership Report compares the perceptions of sustainability of 100 prominent brands, with their sustainability reality.

Their matrix, sorts the brands into 4 categories:

  • leaders – those who perform well in environmental, social and governance (ESG) dimensions of sustainability and successfully communicate their achievements
  • challengers  – who are performing well, but not getting enough credit
  • promoters – who are credited with ESG performance ahead of their actual performance
  • laggards – who are low in both dimensions
brandlogic’s Sustainability Leadership Report matrix
Notice that IBM hits the sweet spot of high sustainability performance and high sustainability perceptions.

The great news

This report surveyed three groups, purchasing/supply management professionals, investment professionals and graduating students.  They were asked :
When evaluating a company as a potential:
  • investment or investment recommendation
  • supply chain partner
  • employer
how important is it to you that the company act as a good corporate citizen, operating in a socially and environmentally responsible manner?
An impressive 88% felt that this was somewhat important or extremely important –  45% responding that it was extremely important.