Five Important Conversations for 2016
Merry Christmas all!
This time of year is typified by the scratching of heads and furrowing of brows as people desperately scrabble around for inspiration and ideas. No, not last minute gift buying, but business bloggers trying to work out how to crow-bar their theories and concepts into Christmas themed blogs.
We tried so hard to come up with a catchily titled: ‘Three things mince pies can teach you about brand building’ or ‘Five ways the nativity story can transform your internal engagement programme’ but frankly it all felt a touch contrived. So instead we thought about the conversations we’ve been having with businesses this year, and pulled out some of the most important ones that we think we’ll be having a lot more of next year.
So sit back, pour yourself an eggnog, have a read and then enjoy a wonderful Christmas. And if you find yourself wanting to continue one of these conversations then feel free to get in touch!
Trust will be the word on every Exec’s lips next year, as the world of business faces into the biggest trust crisis on record. Since the global economic crash trust in business has hit an all time low, further reinforced by a slew of scandals like Horsemeat, Barclays Libor and Volkswagen Emissions.
Trust can sometimes seem like a slightly ephemeral business concept, but the share price crashes of Talk Talk and VW in the wake of their public shaming has demonstrated it has a very real and tangible value to business. Without trust, every aspect of business operations becomes hard, expensive and heavily regulated.
But what to do about Trust? Unfortunately for business, trust is easily lost and hard to win. Businesses will need to look at every element of their operation and ask tough questions about how they treat employees, how they price their products, how they treat customer data, which suppliers they use and how they invest in the communities they operate in. The temptation will be to do this soul searching in private, but the results must be transparent and public for trust to be regained.
The good news is that those that earn trust will have enormous competitive advantage. In the valley of the untrusted, the trusted woman is Queen, so we expect leadership teams to put trust top of their ‘to do’ lists next year.
Strategic Community Investment
There are a lot of reasons why Community Investment (or CSR, CR, etc) has come under scrutiny of late. Many have criticised it for being simply ‘corporate philanthropy’ which at best is a well-meaning attempt on behalf of business to ‘do a bit of good’, but at worst is a fig-leaf attempting to cover all sorts of terrible business practices.
Others go further and claim it is a redundant idea and that corporate responsibility is about corporate culture, not a department. For some, the biggest shame is that so little of its impact is measured or tracked, with millions being wasted on programmes which have questionable social impact.
However, there is no doubt that well-placed CSR activity continues to be a powerful force in building trust, connecting with communities and telling a brand story. Just ask Ben and Jerry’s or Hewlett Packard, both of whom have used investing in communities as a way to build their brand, push innovation and generate new revenue sources.
At a time when businesses are increasingly struggling to demonstrate their values and competitive distinctiveness, community investment can be a powerful differentiator.
So we think that Community Investment will have a strong resurgence next year, but we’re calling it Strategic Community Investment. That is, CI programmes which align closely to business goals and objectives, address real business challenges and build brand. These activities are activated with communities, not to and for them and are measured carefully, both in terms of social impact, but also strategic business value.
There is an old adage in business which is that if you don’t measure something, you won’t do it. In a previous job we had a terrible staff engagement problem, but management wouldn’t do anything about it as there was no data to back it up. When we eventually appointed an HR manager, the first thing she did was carry out a staff survey which immediately demonstrated the major issue at hand, and gave the management team the data that showed had badly staff engagement was having on productivity. This spurred the leadership into action.
In any measurement framework, getting ‘data-in’ is critical, and still all but the largest businesses don’t tend to measure their business in an integrated way. We see separate reports for HR, finance, sustainability, CSR, with little attempt to join these up and see the attributions. The trouble is that modern businesses are not collections of silos, they are complex matrices, and so measurement approaches need to change to reflect the interconnectedness of business functions and outputs, focusing as much on attributions and relationships as they do on absolute values.
The challenges we face, as individuals, businesses and society are increasingly too complex to be tackled individually. As we become ever more connected and we learn more about our interdependencies, we realise that ploughing a lone furrow is not just ineffective, it’s pointless and lonely.
The interesting challenge for business in the coming years will be that many of the biggest challenges in areas like resource supply, talent, wastage and personal data are sector or even industry-wide challenges and as have to be tackled at an industry or sector level. These means arch rivals and competitors having to collaborate and share knowledge and skills – no easy task.
It can be done, however. One only has to look at the success organisations like the Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade have had in getting competitors round a table. Working out how to do collaboration well, even in situations where trust isn’t high, is going to be an essential part of the modern business leaders toolkit.
Furthermore, as employees seek ever-greater flexibility in how they work, the traditional ‘everyone under one roof’ business structure will become increasingly unfashionable. Talented people may opt to become self-employed, and drift in and out of working environments on projects they find interesting.
This makes collaboration a business critical skill, as forward-thinking organisations assemble the best team around a specific challenge, rather than treating every problem as a nail, just because they’ve got a very expensive hammer.
Being of service
We attended a ‘Blueprint for Business’ workshop earlier in the year, and a fellow delegate described his business as ‘being of service’ to his customers and community. We really loved this phrase, and I think this perfectly sums up our approach to client relationship building
We see developing ‘new business’ as what can we do in service of our clients, whilst maintaining focus our broader purpose, not just how can we ‘sell more stuff’.
Being of service means giving before you get, reaching out to help before thinking of precisely how you are going to benefit. It’s something that we as people do instinctively, building closer bonds and increasing our social capital, but business struggles with. Businesses that have embraced ‘being of service’ are often held up as some of the most enlightened organisations; Patagonia, GE, Ella’s Kitchen. Yet most other businesses struggle to make the shift required to emulate their success.
For us, we believe this is due to mindset and culture, not organisational structures or hierarchies. If you have a collaborative, collective mindset and a trusting, positive culture then being of service, investing in others first, comes naturally. You will also have the confidence to know that over time, this approach pays dividends.
Not dissimilar to the spirit of Christmas, really, is it? Sorry, we had to crowbar it in somewhere!
Have a wonderful holiday,
Michelle & Simon