The Communications Gap
Although many organisations have made a public commitment to improving the sustainability of their operations, fewer are actually communicating their intentions and progress clearly to their target audiences. Clear communication with customers, staff, suppliers and other influencers – i.e. your stakeholders – plays an important part in the success of any business or enterprise. Communication strategies that involve and engage multiple stakeholders, delivering messages relevant to groups and sub-groups within a target audience, should be properly planned and developed. Identification of the stakeholder groups, clear messaging and subsequent analysis of the opinions formed provide valuable opportunities to strengthen an organisation’s licence to operate. Improving the understanding and knowledge of important and influential third parties enables an organisation to perform effectively and profitably, while increasing the transparency with which it operates. The construction industry has a particularly wide range of stakeholders – target audiences. These range from suppliers and sub-contractors to regulators, investors, clients and the often overlooked, but vitally important group, employees.
Gathering Stakeholder Views and Feedback
The communications gap is also apparent in stakeholder engagement. Communication with stakeholders should be a two-way street. All too often, stakeholder engagement programmes are planned and implemented without paying sufficient regard to the views of the stakeholders. In short, they do not represent engagement in the true sense; they simply tell someone about the course of action the company has already decided upon. As developers have found to their cost, public opinion can now completely change the outcome of projects. It is always advisable to engage with everyone who is likely to have an interest in a project at the outset, from the potential workforce to the local community, the county council to suppliers. Traditionally, these views have been gathered using round table discussions. In many instances, the face-to-face dialogue this provides can be the best solution, particularly in conflict resolution. However, stakeholder communications often benefit more from the flexible engagement with a broad range of participants that online technology can now offer. Online dialogue and exchange provides an excellent alternative to face-to-face discussions and focus groups. The dialogue can be more inclusive, engaging interest groups who would normally not be willing or able to attend physical meetings. Of course, from a sustainability viewpoint, online dialogue is ideal because of the significantly reduced carbon footprint.
Until recently, online engagement was either limited to a simple email survey or involved multi-thousand pound development budgets for bespoke dialogue platforms. The development of online toolkits such as StakeholderTALK (www.imsplc.com/stakeholdertalk) open up the possibilities for building stakeholder dialogue and engagement processes that are flexible and relatively inexpensive, yet deliver quantifiable information that can add significantly to the decision-making process. StakeholderTALK in particular is finding application in the construction industry, both as a means of delivering evidence of best practice and also as a toolkit that companies can use to encourage involvement from stakeholders and gather views and opinions. The tools available range from an online survey module – recently successfully deployed by the UK Green Building Council for their first full online member survey – to the news and information channel implemented by IMS Consulting for Morgan Sindall’s sustainability microsite: Today (www.morgansindall-today.com) Other modules enable businesses to deliver their sustainability or corporate responsibility reports interactively, while the StakeholderTALK case study engine is a library of best practice examples that can be accessed publicly – see www.skanska-sustainability-case-studies.com/
Building an Online Engagement Process
There are four important points to consider when developing a strategy for multi-level stakeholder engagement. Start by identifying and agreeing precisely which audiences you want to engage. Next, the messages need to be constructed so that they are relevant and – most importantly- meaningful to the particular stakeholder group. Third, the method of communication needs to be chosen that will both deliver information and gather opinion in the most effective, efficient and memorable manner. Finally, feedback should be obtained in such a way to gauge interest, understanding and usefulness of information.
Online delivers many additional benefits when used for engagement. It is accessible continuously, so the majority of the population (there are over 48 million internet users in the UK) should be able to participate. Unlike round table debates, the outcomes are relatively easy to quantify and compare. There is more objectivity in the results and this can help build your evidence base for making a particular decision. The web is the ideal platform for information delivery, whether it’s a video walk-through of what your new shopping centre will look like, or a graphical representation of the reduced carbon footprint of a new office block. Above all, the internet provides all stakeholders with a level platform for debate and comment. Public meetings can be railroaded by a single person. This is much less likely online. As the construction sector realises the need for improved stakeholder engagement, online tools will play an increasingly important role in communications and in the delivery of dialogue and engagement programmes.