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Meaningful Dialogue: Sustainability Reporting and What’s Important

My kids are coming home for the weekend. I’m really looking forward to hanging out with them. Their homecoming got me thinking about some of the most meaningful conversations we’ve had.  How did we initiate them? How and why did those conversations bring us closer? What makes them memorable, and us crave more of them?

The work we do at Sustrana – sustainability management – has some answers.  Conversations are at the heart of our work.   We often call it communications, but what we really mean is conversation.  We mean dialogue; the measured speaking and deep listening that creates positive, long-lasting change. It’s a skill that everyone can learn.

One of my favorite series of TED Talks will get you thinking about how to do this. It’s seven talks (take the time, be entertained) that will give you life lessons and work tools.  My favorite is the talk by Julian Treasure; he’s got a great perspective for business and personal communications.  But really, it’s hard to choose.  The bottom line of the seven?  When you converse in a personal, empathic, connected, and authentic way, you can learn, grow, and improve. And find deep meaning in doing so.

In sustainability, much of the communication we engage in is in the form of reporting.  Rather than approach reporting as a one-way disbursement of information, many people are recognizing the opportunity reporting presents to be part of meaningful dialogue between a company and its stakeholders.

But getting to a meaningful dialogue takes some work.  There’s a lot of complaining about how meaningless a lot of reporting is.  There’s also quite a bit going on to try to fix this.

One logical approach is to pair the topic of your conversation with your audience.  This makes sense in life and in work.  As you would expect, I’ve had different conversations with my kids over the years based on personality and needs, right? With reporting, it’s the same thing, but you also have to let each audience know where to find what it’s looking for and needs.

Your reporting, in whatever form, should present an clear picture of your company’s sustainability journey. Think how useful your information will be if each audience is able to easily find the information most relevant to its concerns.

And that’s basically what the integrated reporting movement is about.  Connected, authentic, and purposeful communications. Meaningful dialogue. It helps stakeholders find what they need so they can provide important feedback to companies.  It helps companies learn, grow, and improve in relationship with important stakeholders.

To get to better reporting, where significant sustainability information is integrated with financial reporting, a heavy hitting alphabet soup of business reporting framework/standards providers  – CDP, CDSB, FASB, GRI, IFRS, IR, ISO, and SASB – are collaborating in the Corporate Reporting Dialogue. This effort “is an initiative designed to respond to market calls for greater coherence, consistency and comparability between corporate reporting frameworks, standards and related requirements.”

They’ve created The Landscape Map to help companies understand how different reporting frameworks align with each other and what information each framework is looking for.  The idea is that you shouldn’t throw everything into every report. Streamline your content to the purpose of the report and focus on its intended audience.

One key aspect of this kind of dialogue is parsing information so you can deliver just what’s relevant to your audience(s). Making it clear who the intended audience is, and for what information, is Professor Robert Eccles’ (Harvard Business School) goal in a campaign to urge company boards of directors to issue an annual “Statement of Significant Audiences and Materiality.”*

The idea is that a board would identify the company’s significant audience(s). It could be just shareholders (with SASB-type reporting) or a wide variety of stakeholders (with GRI-type reporting), or both.  (Ah, I’ll know exactly who’s talking and to whom!)

The company’s statement would identify not only its intended audience(s), but also indicate what information it believes is most significant to the identified audience(s). If there are multiple media for disseminating information to different audiences, the statement could also point to where/how each audience would find its relevant information.  The statement could, in effect, act as an important company-specific roadmap for integrated reporting, perhaps somewhat along the lines of The Landscape Map noted above.  (Ah, I’ll know exactly where to find what’s important to me!)

If you’ve made it this far you might be thinking that’s a lot of change to achieve just to get to where you can have a meaningful and productive conversation!  And you’re right.  But as with many things, setting the stage is often the most important thing to do.  If you watched the TED Talks you get what I mean.

And if you still haven’t watched those TED Talks, take a deep breath or better yet, head to the beach for a de-stressing break before you dig in.  Whatever you do, get inspired about creating more meaningful dialogues.  Here’s my summer inspiration book! I’ll be reading that right after I finish my spy novel….

* Prof. Eccles’ campaign is supported by an effort to collect legal memos about requirements and allowances in a variety of countries for sustainability activities and reporting. So far attorneys from 19 countries have provided this information: Australia, Brazil, China, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  The American Bar Association’s “Task Force on Sustainable Development” will soon be posting all of these documents on its website.