Stakeholder mapping – for threat or opportunity?

To map stakeholders, AccountAbility’s approach is to rank each stakeholder with a number of factors. This approach provides some scaffolding to enable a more objective assessment. Here is a summary of these factors from an earlier version of AccountAbility’s AA1000SES. 

  • Responsibility – the organisation has, or in the future may have, legal, financial and operational responsibilities in the form of regulations, …etc.
  • Dependency – stakeholders who are dependent on an organisationʼs activities and operations in economic or financial terms
  • Influence – stakeholders with influence or decision-making power (e.g. local authorities, shareholders, pressure groups).
  • Representation – stakeholders who through regulation, custom, or culture can legitimately claim to represent a constituency
  • Proximity – stakeholders that the organisation interacts with most, including internal stakeholders …etc
  • Policy and strategic intent – stakeholders addressed through the policies and value statements

Threat bias

Notice how the bias in these factors is towards threat rather than opportunity? Sustainability initiatives, such as stakeholder engagement have developed in the context of threat. Corporates adopted social responsibility initiatives in response to criticism of their social and environmental performance. These were rearguard and defensive actions. Programmes such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) are an example. In this century, corporate are exploring sustainability initiatives as a source of innovation and competitive advantage. I described this shift in an earlier post – What is Sustainability 2.0?

If your organisation wants to express its sustainability initiatives as an opportunity, it would pay to change the factors used in stakeholder mapping to, at least, balance opportunity and threat.

This can be achieved in a number of ways:

  • creating a higher weighting for opportunity factors
  • reducing or combining threat factors
  • adding opportunity factors.

For example, you might combine threat factors such as responsibility and dependency, thus halving their influence in a final rating. Adding an opportunity factor, such as “potential for creating shared value” will further shift the balance. The “shared value” factor identifies those stakeholders the organisation can work with to create shared value. An example could be using a waste product from a stakeholder as a raw material, or supporting education initiatives to upskill the local population as a potential labour force.

Anthony Robbins identifies pleasure (opportunity) and pain (threat) as two motivating forces. Avoiding pain may be a stronger motivator than moving towards pleasure. Is this the case with sustainability and stakeholder engagement? If we are responding to perceived or potential threat we will probably develop a compliance mentality – and I don’t think compliance is that motivating. I would like to think that an aspirational approach based on pursuing engagement opportunities with stakeholders is more motivational. What do you think? 

Stakeholder mapping

Stakeholder mapping is a key process for formalising your stakeholder engagement. Follow this four step process to establish a stakeholder map. Using a matrix to rate the factors that determine the relevance of each stakeholder group will provide another perspective on your business.

AccountAbility’s AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard specifies:

“In order to design stakeholder engagement processes that work, engagement owners need a clear understanding of who the relevant stakeholders are and how and why they may want to engage. The engagement owners need to understand not only the stakeholder group but also the individual stakeholder representatives.”

How you achieve this will, to some degree, will be determined by the size of your organisation. Assuming you don’t have huge resources at your disposal, what I suggest here is a pragmatic four step way to map stakeholders.

1.    Determine the factors that you will use to rate each stakeholder group. These might include:

  • statutory, or other responsibilities
  • their influence on your performance
  • your impact, or potential impact on them
  • geographical proximity,
  • their dependence on your business
  • any existing formal representation they may have on your business’s board or other committees and working parties
  • their relevance to your strategic intent
  • the potential for creating or enhancing shared value.

Select the factors that are most relevant in your first attempt. I especially recommend you include the last – creating or enhancing shared value. This is the factor that most aligns your stakeholder engagement with the win-win orientation of Sustainability 2.0.

2.   Create a matrix, with space for your stakeholder names in the first

broad stakeholder categories

column, and the factors you have chosen in the top row. In your first attempt, brainstorm to identify a list of stakeholders and then rank each factor, using a numerical scale, for each stakeholder group. I suggest a scale of 0 (no relevance) to 3 (high relevance). You might want to weight those factors that are critical so the numbers are potentially higher, but I recommend you start with unweighted factors to keep it simple – it will work. Here’s an example.

3.   Sort the matrix so stakeholders are ranked with those scoring highest at the top. Use a one-page matrix to consult with your colleagues (any more than one page makes the process too unwieldy). In meetings, conversations and workshops get your colleagues to rank stakeholders to establish a ranking that has broad consensus internally.

4.   Indentify your top 10 or so stakeholders and focus on these for the first year of formal engagement. This will pilot your processes and help to focus your engagement efforts with a range of stakeholders, and hopefully get some runs on the board. As you engage, you will unearth other stakeholders. In subsequent years, include stakeholders in this process and build from the initial 10 to a larger number.

As with other stakeholder engagement processes, some staff will find rating stakeholders challenging, as it requires them to consider their world from their stakeholder’s perspective. Expect this shift of perspective to be the first of many benefits from this process.

Fence post or tree? A metaphor for engagement

A fence post and a tree are both anchored in the earth. But they achieve it in totally different ways. A fence post is typically made out of wood, or perhaps concrete. If it is wood, it may be chemically treated to protect it from the organisms of decay in the soil. It is held fast either by compacted earth, or concrete and sits in the earth in attempted isolation.

In contrast, here is Guy Murchie’s elegant and insightful description of a tree root.

If you are among those who think of roots as nothing but dull appendages sleeping peacefully in the stuffy dirt under a plant, you may be interested to know of their real adventures while aggressively hunting for water, air and mineral foods, which means fighting many a pitched battle against competing roots or animals, intermingled with making friendly, constructive deals with rocks, sociable moulds, worms, insects and, more and more frequently, man. At the tip of each advancing thread of root is a root cap, a sort of pointed shoe or shovel made of tough, barklike, self-lubricating stuff that the root pushes ahead of it and replaces constantly by cambium cell division inside as the outside is worn away and turned into slippery jelly by passing stones, teeth, running water or other antagonists. But the tiny root cap is only the first of several specialized parts which, working together, enable the root to steer its zigzag or spiral course, skirting serious obstacles, compromising with offensive substances, judiciously groping for grips on the more congenial rocks, secreting powerful acids to dissolve the uncongenial ones, heading generally downward in search of moisture and minerals while ever careful not to run completely out of air. (The Seven Mysteries of Life, page 46).

Morton Bay Fig (image from Land Lounge)

Extending the metaphor – extending the reach

To extend the metaphor even further, consider mycorrhiza – fungi that establish mutualistic (or symbiotic) relationships with plant roots. Their microscopic mycelia effectively extend the range of roots in their search for water and nutrients. In exchange, the host plant provides its “suppliers” the products of photosynthesis. This “shared value” relationship renders the plant more drought tolerant and disease resistant while providing the fungi with exotic foodstuffs from distant climes.

While the fence post can only support a limited load, from small beginnings the tree can grow to its genetic potential. Its engaged root system provides the platform for a stunning range of diverse and beautiful aerial structures. I am in awe of the engineering feats of trees such as the Morton Bay fig that sprout branches growing tens of metres parallel to the ground.

Many companies are in the process of transformation from the fence-post like relationship with their environment to the organic model so ably described by Guy Murchie. Walmart, for example, the target of justifiable hostility in the past, is taking herculean steps towards sustainability. It is influencing its massive supply chain to do so much better.

The parallels to be drawn from this metaphor are numerous – please share your insights.