Our 6 year old daughter recently asked us what the brain looks like after a stroke. We looked at each other blankly, realising the time had come when we were no longer all-knowing masters of the universe in our daughter's eyes, and watched her reach for an iPad. Within 10 seconds, she showed us a slightly grotesque picture of a brain with an internal haemorrhage.
The Internet is changing the way we share knowledge in a manner as profound as Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Given the printing press laid the foundation for the industrial revolution, that’s a big statement. Big advances in knowledge sharing act as a major accelerant on the speed of change, diffusing innovation and widening participation.
This sharing of innovation is the single biggest reason why we should back business to build a more sustainable and happy future for society.
It’s hard to see how that’s going to happen right now. The business community is yet to work out how to share sustainability innovation in a systems-changing way. Most companies adhere to the rules of the past, where things that are successful become a competitive issue. Organisations might want to add social purpose, but they want to do it alone, in the same way they develop their core business strategy.
I’ll leave the explanation of why we are inevitably entering a social era of business to Nilofer Merchant, as I couldn’t do it better than her. And signs of success are emerging, be it GlaxoSmithKline’s decision to put its drug trial data in the public domain, or M&S’s Plan A contributing £120m to profit whilst helping M&S to become the UK’s most trusted brand.
But whilst there might be a handful of social era success stories, most companies still see the journey towards social business models as fraught with innovation risk. They are not sure what will work, and uncertainty means higher discount rates, a barrier to investment in sustainable activities.
Every organisation is going down a remarkably similar road. It starts with questions such as;
• Who should we get to head up our sustainability initiatives?
• Who should he/she report into?
• How should we determine our material issues – who do we include in the process?
• How do we set targets – what’s the stretch, should it involve others?
And then moves on to more tactical issues;
• Should we create an innovation fund to fund the longer paybacks?
• How do we get sustainability objectives into our R&D process?
The list goes on.
And you can see the issue. So long as every company is to some degree re-inventing the wheel, there is a haze of innovation risk that sits as an obstacle to systems change. Imagine, instead, how powerful it would be if companies could learn from each other? Particularly across sectors where there are no competitive issues to get in the way. And remember, sustainability is a non-core business issue – no-one would be sharing their core IP.
What is missing is a mechanism for disseminating information that is as easy as my daughter reaching for an i-Pad. And horizontal crowdsourcing, for lack of a less techy word, may be the umbrella of that format. In layman’s terms it means formats that enable corporate peers in different sectors to share solutions to common problems.
Green Mondays has dipped its toe in the world of horizontal crowdsourcing, in conjunction with our crowdsourcing partner Fishburn Hedges, and we know it works. In October 2012, we built a crowd of 220 experts in sustainability, mainly made of up senior sustainability people at FTSE250 sized organisations, and asked them to appraise Sainsbury’s 20 x 20 sustainability plan.
The crowd wrote a small book, including almost 700 comments, and produced a gap analysis of significant prescience. It identified the two most important sustainability areas for Sainsbury’s as “engaging its supply chain” and “communicating with its customers”. With the horsemeat saga coming a few months later, Sainsbury’s feel the crowd got it spot on.
The result was a triple win. The crowd invested half an hour of their time in the online appraisal in return for a book of ideas, followed by a plenary session with CEO Justin King and specialist peer-led roundtable discussions. Sainsbury’s received an appraisal from 220 experts, and were recognised as leaders in corporate transparency. Green Monday’s sponsors got to meet with the best audience we have convened.
I hope we’ll look back on today as a messy and inefficient moment in the sharing of sustainability innovation. We’ll say, “wasn’t it incredible how much change was unleashed by new, efficient ways of sharing knowledge?” in much the same way as people talk about how the Internet has created the fast-growing peer-to-peer economy.
The question becomes who is going to develop the platform?