Data is everywhere. We are confronted with it all the time and make sense of it by considering it within its context.
Take for instance the price of a pack of milk. By looking at the volume of the pack, the prices of the different options, and the labelling of the packages, we determine whether we consider it an acceptable price for the product we’d receive.
The same goes for data about the responsible business behaviour of companies. However, when simply reading a Corporate Sustainability report, it can be incredibly difficult to place that data into its relevant context.
Is 2.9 million tonnes of CO2 emissions acceptable for an airline company? Surely, knowing the size of their fleet, frequency of flights, and the distance flown would help us make a better judgement. And even more so if we could compare it to the CO2 emissions ratios of other airliners.
Liberating data with open research platforms
The first step to contextualize corporate sustainability data is therefore liberating it from these lengthy pdf reports. In these documents, companies tell their story of how they fulfill their societal role and this kind of context is of course a great vantage point. However, if we want to improve business practices, we need to take data to the next level.
On an open research platform like WikiRate.org, we can select a set of metrics that are applicable to the operations of a range of companies and extract the relevant data from their bespoke reports.
We could, for instance, set up a research project that enables volunteer researchers to assess waste management practices of oil and gas companies, using G4 indicators from the Global Reporting Initiative.
As the researchers follow the methodological steps of each metric, the data flows onto the platform with a consistent unit of measure, making it possible to be reused in research and analyses that build on the fundamental data that companies provide us with.
Comparing data through ranking and indices
Once the data has been opened up and collected in a central repository like WikiRate.org, we can then start to make sense of it by grouping company performance around specific topics. On WikiRate, these analyses can be constructed on top of live data and shared and discussed openly, as new data comes in the analyses update automatically.
It is this kind of analysis and contextualization that rankings, indices, and benchmarks provide. Often they show us, in the parameters of an industry or country, the relative performance of some of the largest companies we know.
One such index is the India Responsible Business Index (IRBI).
First launched in 2015, IRBI aims to make companies accountable and encourages them to create good policies. Covering the top 100 companies of the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), the index ranks company performance in 5 areas – Non Discrimination, Community Development, Employees Dignity, Community Business Stakeholders, and Supply Chain.
Within these topics, the index assesses company disclosure with regards to policies, due diligence, and best practices. The better a company performs, the higher it’s topical score.
Data drives the conversation about responsible business
Apart from presenting the data available in a contextual and understandable manner, benchmarks also highlight gaps in performance or disclosure. They set the bar and clearly articulate the steps that companies should take to manage their operations responsibly.
This is why the results of these analyses are the perfect starting point for conversations about improving business practices. A data-driven conversation that businesses, civil society, governments, and media should all be part of.
The need for government and media to get involved becomes clear when assessing the performance of companies on specific topics alongside legislation or news streams. Often companies score better on benchmarked topics that are covered in existing legislation or have received a lot of media attention.
Again turning to the IRBI, we can for example see that the overall performance on the topic of Non Discrimination is much better than that of Employee Dignity. Whereas the first concerns equal employment opportunities and diversity in all layers of the organizational structure, the latter addresses how companies ensure the wellbeing of their employees through fair wage schemes, allowing for collective bargaining, and providing a safe work environment.
Lastly, benchmarks and indices also help us pinpoint trends. Are companies behaving more responsible as time goes on and societal expectations become more clear? When comparing the performance of companies included in both the 2015 and 2016 IRBI, we see that most companies improved their overall performance, but that the relative improvement for the focus areas Community Development and Community Business Stakeholders is less strong.
Identifying these kinds of patterns is again a solid starting point for conversations about improving business practices. Why are companies struggling to improve in these areas? Is it because these topic areas address external factors rather than internal operations?
Clearly, corporate sustainability data does not always provide us with the answers we are looking for. However, by liberating, contextualizing, and analyzing the data in a meaningful way, it points us to the questions that need to be asked. The questions that will help us change the game. After all, counting is only the first step toward accountability.
We are looking forward to finding out which responsible businesses are rising to the occasion this year and where there is still room for improvement at the upcoming launch of the IRBI 2018. Are you ready to ask the data-driven questions that will change the game?
If you’d like to learn more about the power of data, read Putting Data at the Heart of Business Responsibility.
This article was written by Laureen Van Breen.