Content management process aids corporate sustainability efforts

Effective content management can drive new business value through better communication of sustainability risks and opportunities.

When you get asked what "content management" is, you may still be able to get away with simply saying "SharePoint" or citing the Wikipedia definition of it as "a set of processes and technologies that support the collection, managing and publishing of information in any form or medium." But both of those answers ignore what a well-designed content management process means to a business. And that is creating value.

Scot PetersenScot Petersen

In my previous column, I said that content is a critical linchpin in any strategy to reach and satisfy customers. But let's modify that to reaching and satisfying "stakeholders" -- anyone who has a vested interest in a company. That group includes customers, but also employees, investors, business partners, neighbors in the community, residents of the states where it has operations, even citizens of the planet as whole.

Content must be available for each group of stakeholders to access at any time, and strategies must be put in place for targeting different stakeholders with relevant content whenever necessary, wherever they may be. That isn't all, though: The fact is that compliance in all its forms, including governance (internal and external), e-discovery, risk management and corporate social responsibility, must be where a large chunk of a company's content is directed in order to generate maximum business value.

Sustainable content management

A major case in point is the move for companies to become more socially responsible, or "sustainable," in their business practices. I've written about sustainability in the context of compliance, but it is also important for IT professionals, working closely with business executives, to create a plan for organizing information (i.e., content) to enable sustainable practices and communicating those practices to stakeholders. This is especially important for public companies.

One way a company can disclose sustainable business practices is through the Global Reporting Initiative, a nonprofit organization created in the late 1990s by Ceres and the Tellus Institute, two Boston-based sustainability research and advocacy groups.

But such reporting, which hundreds of companies around the world do every year, is being undermined by a lack of standards for what it means to be socially responsible. With more than 100 rating agencies doing business, there are few "apples to apples" grades or comparisons of one company's sustainability efforts versus another's. As a result, Ceres and Tellus have again partnered to create the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR).

The ratings game

As Allen White, a senior fellow at Tellus and GISR founder, explains it, the GISR is seeking to create a "world-class" sustainability ratings standard. "Ratings are a big business. Some [raters] are comprehensive, meaning they are rating companies across the board on environmental issues, social issues [and] corporate governance," he said in an interview in his Boston office. "And another group, the issue-specific raters, they are rating only governance, rating only carbon emissions. They are rating only some particular social issue, like human rights."

It's important to create a plan for organizing information (i.e., content) to enable sustainable practices.

The GISR this month closed the public comment period on a set of 12 "principles" for its ratings standard and accreditation process, the first of what White called the "triangle of components" that the organization will start rolling out next month. The GISR website describes the principles as the underlying attributes of a ratings framework required to achieve credibility among stakeholders; the GISR standard will also include "issues," which are the themes and topics that will be used to assess a company's sustainability performance, and "indicators," the metrics for measuring sustainability performance levels. "In May we'll have the principles," White said. "By approximately December we'll have the second component, the issues, and by end of 2014 we'll have the indicators."

Investment firms see a lot of value in what the GISR is doing, not only for potential investors but for the companies that are seeking to improve their business processes and standing with stakeholders.

Risk versus opportunity

Calvert Investments Inc., a socially responsible investment firm with more than $12 billion under management, relies mostly on its own internal analysts to grade firms on a variety of sustainable business practices. But the GISR could help sort out the differences among ratings agencies, said Stephanie Cuttler Aument, senior sustainability analyst and manager at Calvert in Bethesda, Md.

"At the core is understanding the ratings methodology [of an agency] and what goes into making that rating," she said. "Each is slightly different. We were doing research long before any of these ratings were available, so in many cases we take that rating and compare it against what our analysis is on these companies."

Aument explained that ratings agencies, also known as environmental, social and governance (ESG) vendors, usually present information about companies in one of two ways: through a risk framework, focusing on things such as operations and regulatory risks, or an opportunity framework, such as how much progress a company is making against a certain issue. She added that the opportunity framework can be the more useful and valuable form of information. "The ratings tend to skew toward risk mitigation," she said. "Opportunity is the holy grail in what ratings are really trying to provide."

At the end of the day, that is what business is all about: finding and exploiting opportunities. Creating seamless information flows and an effective content management process can help companies get there faster and better communicate how they did so.

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