Moving from Partnerships to Networks

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I’ve been talking to a number of industry leaders about their Corporate Responsibility (CR) challenges. Here’s what I’ve been hearing:

  • Companies are under more pressure from stakeholders to scale up CR targets, initiatives, and commitments,
  • There’s never been better buy-in inside the company for CR in general, but the resources to scale-up require a major business case,
  • They’ve never needed partnerships more and never been more frustrated with making them work.

The answer? Use and mobilize an asset that effective CR teams build and engage with daily -- our networks.

What if CR teams approached the networks of communities, nonprofits, employees, existing partners, and stakeholders the same way that the rest of the business looks at its value chain? How would they do that?

The first step is to adopt a different mindset and banish the word “partnership” from your vocabulary. Instead, approach challenges by asking how can we mobilize the right networks to deliver effective solutions?

Intel is a prime example of what this can look like. Intel’s education team seeks to deliver large-scale improvements in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education performance through the application of information and communication technology. Intel assesses challenges, education performance influencers, and quality service providers tackling key aspects of the STEM improvement challenge. From here, Intel sees where its unique capabilities can make a difference. In countries like Portugal, this means filling gaps to enhance teacher trainer curricula, implementing technology specially formulated for kids (i.e. laptops designed to be difficult for kids to break), and engaging Intel staff volunteers in elements of the program. Underscoring these initiatives is the effort to engage major service providers in the wider network to track and measure student and teacher improvement. Intel’s results speak for themselves. Their programs reach more than a million students and teachers in Portugal and around the world.

The second step is measurement. Specifically, establish and agree on the kinds of performance outcomes and related measures the program will achieve. Establishing agreed measures of success has benefits for everyone. It cuts through politics to concentrate networks on results first and resources second and it forces one to ask, “who is best positioned to help achieve our goals and outcomes?” Measurement is a vital tool to find the right network and build a strategy that focuses on each organization's strengths.

The third step identifies a “solution value chain” and identifies the role the company wants to perform in it. This differs from the typical approach of designing a program, funding an organization, or launching a partnership. Each of these typical approaches represent a model of using an organization to conceive, produce, implement, and scale CR-related solutions. The network approach looks at what capabilities, resources, actions, and outcomes are needed to deliver solutions over a period of time. Using a solution value chain, the company now identifies what part of this chain aligns with its resources and expertise.

Companies can choose whether they wish to own the solution network, or “value-chain,” or perform a role in it. An example of the former is UTC which established The Center for Green Schools with the goal to convert all US schools to certified green buildings within a generation. Along with addressing the impact of buildings on the environment, studies find that green school buildings correlate with raising test scores by 26%. In one example, in inner city Philadelphia, conversion to green building correlated with an increase in graduation rates from 30% to 67%. While UTC does not intend to serve as the sole actor in the initiative, it is definitely performing a vital role to get it off the ground. An example of the latter is Veolia Water which is helping government agencies better understand water access, distribution, and resilience. For example, they and their partners are working in New York City to help explain the value of protecting its watershed in order to maintain regional water security and biodiversity.

The fourth step is to apply network knowledge and technology. A clever emerging example comes from General Motors Company (GM) which is using its On-Star Network to empower GM vehicle owners to turn themselves into car-sharing entrepreneurs. On-Star holds the potential to allow each of us to rent our vehicles. It can help manage security (unlocking and tracking the car as the renter uses it) and the transaction. Not only does such a service hold tremendous economic and societal benefits it can help reduce vehicle miles traveled to reduce energy consumption and traffic congestion.

These steps on how to mobilize CR networks as value chains to deliver effective solutions are just a preview. We’ll be producing further research on what the Network Effect means for CR strategy and examples of its good practices at BCLC's Corporate Responsibility Conference in Washington, DC from October 9-11, 2013 is “The Network Effect: How Business Drives Progress.”