Sustainability Leadership

Kate Hilton, Head of Membership South at BITC, muses on the exciting opportunity of inclusive digital transformation

According to Wikipedia (the fount of all knowledge) I’m just young enough to be classed as a ‘Millennial’. Growing up, I have watched technology change the natural rhythm of our daily lives, be that in the way we work, study or interact socially. In my teens I read dystopic novels about what seemed a distant future, where citizens were controlled by machines. Yet here I am in 2017 soaking up the data from my Fitbit as soon as I get out of bed whilst simultaneously wishing forward to summer when my husband and I leave our electronic devices at home and bunker down in rural Scotland for an off-grid ‘digital detox’.

Looking back through history, the industrial revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries brought mechanisation to the workplace, increasing productivity, efficiency and output. Britain may have cemented her position as a world power and standards of living may have increased overall, but this came at a cost to much of society. Many small craft workers felt left behind as their skilled, cottage industry couldn’t compete with factory output whilst factory owners, the new middle classes, imposed harsh working conditions on their employees. In the second half of the 20th century the third revolution saw greater automation of tasks through electronics, again boosting efficiency but also ushering in job losses. The advent of the internet democratised access to information, heralding a new relationship between companies and their customers, yet experts predict by 2020, 6.2m people in the UK will still lack the basic digital skills needed to access the internet. Progress should always be seen as a good thing, but as we stand on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution we must learn the lessons of the past to ensure digital transformation is inclusive and provides opportunity for all.

In late February, I attended a Leadership Laboratory run by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), a fellow member of the  Prince’s Charities. The two days were spent exploring Sustainability Leadership in the context of solving systemic (wicked*) problems, the aspiration of any visionary CR practitioner. No one country can tackle the challenge of climate change alone; no one food brand can solve the issue of depleting world fish stocks without appropriating supranational support; no one retailer can rectify the low pay and conditions of garment workers unless stakeholders the entire length of the fashion industry value chain get involved. Over the course of the Lab we studied academic frameworks, worked through practical case studies and developed our own thinking as teams. My team worked on the challenge I brought to the Lab - how to ensure an inclusive digital future for all.

Frameworks for change: three steps to take when tackling systemic sustainability problems

Despite the best and most collaborative of intentions, multi-stakeholder partnerships created to address systemic problems are doomed to fail unless these three elements are addressed:

1. Create collaborative advantage

Design structures and processes to ensure that collaborative advantage outweighs collaborative inertia. This means prioritising new ideas and relationships, pursuing shared value and innovative solutions; leaving behind free riders, vetoing talking shops and stalemates.

2. Employ systems leaders

Nurture those who can work effectively across organisational boundaries to leverage external resource, overcome silos and pursue shared goals with others.

3. Mobilise sufficient resource to sustain the effort required

Establish the right stakeholder mix across the industry, policy, finance and NGO communities. Ensure a neutral and respected third party facilitates discussions. Prepare briefing materials which speak to all stakeholders, and trial critical elements before any meeting.

We also studied a framework for sustainability leadership from Avalerion Capital, which considers the personal drivers and core beliefs of the systems leader along with their behaviours, the climate they create, and the way they measure value. This led us to receive feedback from a new 360 degree feedback process we had each undertaken in preparation for the course. It was encouraging to see I ranked myself more harshly than my colleagues and member contacts had done!

By day two, the lofty problem statement my working group had been grappling with - how to ensure an inclusive digital future for all - was starting to look more manageable. We considered implications on the changing nature of work, social cohesion and environmental stewardship. We looked at digital as a necessary catalyst for economic growth, to stop companies losing their competitive advantage, and considered two potential advantages of job automation: increased employee satisfaction, and productivity. That led us towards a much more specific systemic challenge - using digital as a lens to tackle productivity in the construction industry. Who knows how far we might have got if the course had been a week long!

Reflections on the Lab

Digital transformation is all encompassing, offering great opportunity to improve the lives of citizens and reduce inequalities. As BITC encourages business to seize the opportunities of a digital future, I see a critical success factor being to help companies break this systemic problem down into a series of more specific challenges. That’s why I’m excited by the second phase of our digital project which will launch four priorities for business, with key actions under each. I feel confident that, by focussing on practical action, we can use our convening heritage to help companies accelerate change towards a more prosperous, and inclusive, digital future.

*Systemic, or ‘wicked’ problems: Basic problems or changes experienced by the whole of an organisation or country and not just particular parts of it, arising from the structure of the system. In a sustainability context a problem is systemic if the behaviour of most or all of its important social agents are affected

Source: Cambridge Dictionary