Garbage in, garbage out!

Garbage in, garbage out!

Over the last few months, working with a number of clients on how best to engage their internal teams, one issue has gradually emerged as key to potential success.

When I look around at other work we’re doing and cast my mind back, it suddenly hits me that there is one issue that is often overlooked – the power of data.

Very often when talking about data we direct our attention at the use or accuracy of it in reporting. We look at it from this end as a sustainability professional because that is our interest, how we are judged and our profession. But we rarely consider the user, the data source and poor, over-stretched site manager who is trying to juggle umpteen balls, one of which is energy or waste data. In more cases than I care to remember or name, the way the information is collected can be a huge barrier to fundamental behaviour change.

By putting oneself in the position of the person providing the information, we start to form a picture of their challenges and why all too often change and progress goes nowhere or happens with glacial speed (although with climate change, some glaciers move quite fast now!). If we focus our attention exclusively or prioritise the outcome, the output and the use of data then we ignore potential disengagement from the people that provide the sustainability report’s raw materials.

Devil is in the detail

Engagement is so much more than training, procedures and giving the latest sustainability initiative a fancy logo. As with many aspects of strategy, the devil is in the detail, and in this case, we are increasingly seeing that for real acceptance and progress to happen equal weight must be given to data input and architecture of databases and knowledge management. It can get down to issues as prosaic as – if it takes five minutes too long to input data each week, then it doesn’t get done by 30% of those required to do it, or the input accuracy suffers. But most importantly staff feel disengaged, uninvolved and can become positively hostile to new requests for ever more data, more often, oh and can we have some case studies at the same time, please? Sometimes, in fact more often than not, without the “please”.

The variety of means of collecting data and other information is still wide – many still using paper systems, some have progressed to spreadsheets and databases and then further on to bespoke data management systems. For some data automation has taken over and is seen by many as the panacea, take the squidgy, organic form (the humans) out of the equation and all our data problems are solved. Maybe not because there is one further common flaw in the way that sustainability data are used – there is often little or no formal or informal feedback. In many large companies, information is hoovered up into the central machine and the people who provided the data hear nothing more until they are castigated for failing to meet an annual or longer term target.

Make or break strategy

Data can make or break a sustainability strategy. While sustainability professionals obsess about the latest standards or methods, the accuracy or verifiability of the data, the local manager is frustrated with outdated information technology, slow line-speeds and an ever longer to-do-list, with much of it coloured red.

There is no five-point plan for how to correct this. The way to correct this is to put yourself in their place. While it is important to talk with your external stakeholders about their information requirements, it is urgent to listen to your employees, contractors and others that provide data. With smartphone technology now readily available a simple app may be what is needed. But don’t obsess about technology, think about the squidgy, organic form.

A final thought: one real danger, I have been predicting for the past 15 years, is as those graduates and younger people entering the workplace with higher expectations for sustainability performance are met with archaic, low-tech and unresponsive corporate information processes, they too lose their enthusiasm and revert to the lowest common denominator. Don’t rely exclusively on technology and the next generation to solve the problems we have created.

Read more from The Vivian Partnership on their blog.