Two decades in, sustainability reporting, collecting, processing and communicating relevant data remains a fundamental challenge for many organizations. That’s the surprising conclusion of Anthesis’ most recent reporting event. Can the power of data be harnessed more efficiently, asks Ben Tuxworth?
Last Friday in London, professionals from some of the world’s leading reporting organizations shared their reflections and insights on the current state and likely future of data as the backbone of sustainability reporting. Irrespective of size, sector or level of experience, many reported the most basic challenges remain. It is still difficult to motivate colleagues to collect data. Much of the work is still fragmented, using basic tools such as Excel; and the data gathered is of mixed credibility as a result. Bringing in bespoke systems that offer better solutions is often problematic because of the need to integrate with other corporate software. As a result, reporting professionals are left with a huge job bringing the story together.
For participants at the event, behind these practical difficulties lie some more strategic questions. What data should an organization collect? Is the purpose to prove a differentiating sustainability story for a company? Or is it about serving the insatiable appetites of the ever-growing number of frameworks, standards and indices? Participants nodded at the suggestion that something’s got to give when it comes to the sheer volume of such expectations, but nobody felt a solution was anywhere in sight. One optimist hoped that a small set of sustainability indicators would eventually be standardized for all reporters, but others round the table felt the current trend is the opposite. At worst, they are forced to spend precious and diminishing resource collecting and cutting data to create irrelevant reports that are little read.
In this challenging environment, what’s working for our reporters? Some principles emerged to guide action:
1. Accept the picture will remain complex, but be open to new tech
The landscape of data collection tools, practices and culture, and of changing business units and boundaries will always be a busy one. Add to this the inevitability of reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions and divestments and it’s clear we will never reach the sunlit uplands where all is fixed and one integrated solution does the lot. In some ways that is liberating – we are in a world in which you need not let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good enough’. With technology and new solutions developing fast, there’s a good chance a workable solution is available at reasonable cost. If a data tool looks like it will work for three or four years, that may be about as good as it will get.
2. Integrated business and sustainability strategy helps
All those colleagues whose co-operation you need in gathering and managing data are likely to pay more attention when it’s not just numbers for boring old sustainability. Two of the participants at our event had just launched more integrated commercial and sustainability strategies, and were already reaping the benefits in terms of greater readiness around the company to supply data on what are now mainstream business metrics. This does not necessarily correlate to a carte blanche for integrated reporting, about which there is still considerable uncertainty, but it ought to make that easier too.
3. Business value remains the pole star
As we have concluded at previous reporting events, the best test of what to do in this complex field is to focus on business value. Will the solution you are looking at pay for itself through efficiency gains, or by engaging staff better, or supporting an important commercial narrative? Will it help drive innovative thinking in the company? Will it keep you ahead of regulatory or reputational risk? Will it help you create powerful communications? If not, why will anybody care enough to use it?
These principles won’t give you all the answers but might be a useful starting point in decisions about how best to invest for effective data collection, management and reporting.
Anthesis is software and framework agnostic, and we help lots of organizations choose the best solutions for reporting. If you’d like to discuss your data collection, management, reporting and visualization needs, please get in touch.