What is the future of stakeholder engagement?

We’re starting this week’s blog with a brief history of stakeholder engagement on corporate responsibility.
Looking back to the eighties, corporate stakeholder engagement on sustainability was initially oriented towards governments and environmental compliance. Push-back on infrastructure and development from communities was the main catalyst for public consultations, which were largely local, box-ticking exercises. As we moved into the 1990s, the rise of a more empowered civil society culminated with the Battle of Seattle protests at the WTO meeting as the century closed. This brought a more structured approach from businesses and the realization that companies needed to engage beyond governments and consult more seriously with the public. A good example is Nike’s response to labour issues, where the company actually helped create an NGO – the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities.
The new century opened with a series of corporate scandals, industry-specific challenges and a rise in the prominence of global issues around the environment, poverty and human rights. This led to demands for greater transparency and ethics. It was the decade when business realised it couldn’t go it alone – stakeholder mapping became the norm, companies sought partners within the NGO community, and engagement took the form of in-person convenings and round tables.
In the last few years, companies have had to deal with increasing stakeholder expectations, mounting economic, social and environmental challenges, and new, disruptive technologies. They have needed to expand into new geographies and cultures and collaborate well outside their comfort zones. We covered these recent trends in more detail in our introductory blog exploring why stakeholder engagement matters.
Now, as we look forward – what does the future hold for stakeholder engagement? We can see that the dynamics of the relationship between business and society are changing rapidly. There are more stakeholders than ever. While being more dispersed geographically, they are also more connected, particularly through social media. It is no longer enough for businesses to assume they know how stakeholders will respond to a corporate policy or initiative – they need to find new and innovative ways to engage them proactively.
As we’ve seen, traditional approaches to stakeholder engagement have focused largely on relationships and face-to-face contact via consultation or roundtable discussions. However, technology now allows for online forums and platforms to not only monitor stakeholder discussions via digital listening but also to build platforms for mass engagement that can facilitate and complement more micro-level engagement. Given the changing nature of companies’ stakeholders and their expectations, we can expect these new channels to dominate in the years to come.

Stakeholder collaboration forums aren’t the only solution. And they aren’t suitable for all types of audiences – for example, we struggle to engage government stakeholders and the investment community – or for all types of issues that organisations are looking to address with their stakeholders. But they are likely to be a cornerstone of best practice going forward. Why? Because of their ability to reach more stakeholders, more frequently, at a deeper level, and in real time.
Best practice will also involve managing the complexity of stakeholder audiences, engagement and activities. It’s time for companies to build integrated stakeholder engagement strategies that pull together the range of offline and online approaches that are now possible. Given how essential stakeholder engagement is to corporate success, this function needs a robust means of listening, engaging and responding to stakeholders.