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The limits of stakeholder engagement

It might seem odd for someone who is involved with two businesses firmly rooted in notions of stakeholder engagement to question whether the practice has limits.

But it certainly does. Let me give you two examples.

Firstly, over at Ethical Corporation, the company conducts more than 300 senior executive and manager interviews every year from the office, and hundreds more are undertaken by our global network of freelance journalists and writers.

When we formulate products (conferences, reports, the magazine/website content) from that research it’s by no means easy to pick out consensus from them, much of the time.

We end up choosing products based partly on the research, and partly on gut feeling. When I’ve tried a purely scientific model in the past, it’s always failed.

The lesson here? Mix art and science, and when in doubt, do what feels right. It’s a lot scarier in theory than depending on survey numbers or whatever, but it has a higher success rate, for me at least.

My second example of the limits of stakeholder engagement comes from my current teaching at Birkbeck, a college of the University of London, where I teach two corporate responsibility modules on two Master’s programmes.

Instead of the usual 25 or so, I now suddenly have 80 students across two courses.

More students means more feedback and many more emails, as one might expect.

In the last few weeks Birkbeck have asked me to ask the students to fill in weekly feedback forms and hand them back to me at the end of each lecture.

Can you imagine that? 50 people a week writing comments about you while you stand in front of them and try to inform them somehow on a fairly complex topic. It’s a little daunting I must say.

Given the economic times, students seem to be becoming a lot more demanding, and the feedback forms are proving that to me.

After a few weeks of getting back 25-35 hastily scribbled or carefully written (the scary ones) feedback forms per week I’ve had to draw something of a line under how seriously I now take the process.

That worries me of course: Does it mean I feel immune from criticism? No. I hope not. It’s because what I get back is so contradictory and based on the personal preferences of the students, I’m genuinely not sure what to do with it.

For example, last week I had comments that my lectures are more like executive education than university, but also that the sessions are too theoretical and not practical enough. Multiply that contradiction by about 5-10 others and you start to get the picture.

I’m feeling like I’m at Franz Kafka airport, as the Onion might joke.

So I take on board what I can, and go with my gut on what I change for future lectures. That’s all I can do.

I can’t help feeling that If I was managing a team in a large business that was at the centre of corporate feedback, as CR/sustainability teams often are, I’d have to adopt a similar approach.

You can’t listen to all the voices out there, not even a lot of them.

The trick is trying to work out who is genuinely representative or genuinely potentially troublesome, and match their views against your gut, and your internal corporate attitudes, culture and operating environment. (If you need some help with that, take a look here)

Meanwhile I’m still trying to work out how to do that with my own current crop of vociferous, loud and opinionated stakeholders.

More art than science, and that’s the way it should be.

UPDATE: 13/02/12: I had a good tip on having more feedback than you can handle from a very experienced professor as a result of this post: She said, just wait 3 months or even longer, and then read it all. The sense of distance gives you perspective on what you may want to change next time around. Useful.


  1. Ah, Toby, you are now experiencing the tribulations of management. Your colleague wisely advises stopping the clock to get perspective. Perhaps others may advise taking the views of your stakeholders seriously, but not too seriously. That way you can improve without losing your confidence, and most important, your highly developed sense of humor. Keep smiling!

    Peter T. Knight

  2. Thanks Peter, much appreciated.

    I must confess that running a small business has not prepared me much for mass feedback on a weekly basis.

    My business customers are much more polite: Or perhaps just don't buy again if they don't like our products 🙂

    What doesn't annoy you too much makes you stronger, as I'm sure the saying does not go.