We recently had the opportunity to conduct a stakeholder study on transparency for the Plan A team at Marks & Spencer (M&S). Combining an online survey with global stakeholders and a series of in-depth interviews with a selected group of experts, the study aimed to identify stakeholder expectations on transparency and help M&S prioritise its transparency efforts.
In this first of a series of three short blogposts, we are drawing on the survey findings to define the notion of transparency. Transparency is not another corporate buzzword, but a complex concept that goes well beyond the single notion of “data.” Transparency is a multi-layered, multi-faceted business imperative that must be fully understood in order to meet stakeholder expectations.
In particular, study findings point to two core elements of definition:
1. “How” companies share information matters as much to stakeholders as “what” is shared. When asked to define transparency, stakeholders focus as much on the type of data they expect companies to share as on the way in which they expect companies to make it available to them. To stakeholders, it is important that companies be open and honest, make their data easily accessible, and engage in two-way dialogue.
2. Stakeholders want to understand the bigger context around data and targets. Data on performance, together with associated targets, is the bedrock of transparency. However, stakeholders increasingly find targets to be “restrictive” and want to understand the wider context around these. As put by one of the in-depth interview respondents taking part in the study, “all is concocted through targets that a company aims to achieve – most of the time these targets are arbitrary and non-achievable. Targets are very restrictive – [they] focus on very specific problems but these problems shift over time and this is not taken into account. The focus is too narrow on the targets – companies should look at the bigger picture in order not to be limited.”
This means that, beyond data and targets, stakeholders expect companies to talk more broadly about their business issues (risks and opportunities), the strategies and corporate plans put in place to address these issues, the governance and decision-making systems used to support the implementation of these strategies, and ultimately, how all of this relates to the bigger business purpose and vision of the company.
These points of definition based on stakeholder feedback offer useful guidance to any company striving to become (more) transparent.
In our second blog post, we will look into the state of transparency performance in large companies – are companies perceived to be transparent today, and if not, why?
The M&S Stakeholder Transparency Study was conducted using a dual-methodology: n=14 in-depth interviews were carried out with a selected group of experts to obtain qualitative views on transparency trends and implications (from January 12th to February 13th, 2015) and n=172 stakeholders including academics, NGOs/think tanks, media, consultants, corporates, SRI analysts and financial institutions took part in an online survey (from January 12th to 2nd February, 2015), thus providing hard quantitative data. Experts and stakeholders invited to take part in this study were jointly identified by GlobeScan and M&S.