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Top tips on stakeholder engagement

John Aston and Alan Knight have just published a new book with DoShorts in the UK.

It’s called Smart Engagement: Why, What, Who, How.

I sent Alan five questions about the book.

Here’s what he had to say below:

TW: Someone said to me the other day they feel that stakeholder engagement is one part of the field that has gone backwards in the last ten years. Do you agree?

A handy primer on the topic

AK: I don’t think that thinking about engagement has gone backwards but it is perhaps fair to say that the common way in which it is practiced has gone backwards.

As engagement has become a more accepted part of management practice many more organisations have looked for ways to claim they are doing it, without really understanding what it is or what purpose it serves.

So you get a lot of perfunctory efforts and a lowering of the ‘common practice’ bar.

In part this book was written to address this.

We make it very clear that if you are going to do it, understand what it is and how to do it right.

Do it for a purpose and be SMART about it.

TW: Linked to question one, are too many companies, when they do engage, just doing it to tick boxes, and to have something to put into their sustainability report?

AK: Without doubt. If the only purpose for engaging is so that they can tick a box in a report you are wasting everybody’s time. This is clearly nonsense.

The purpose of engagement is not engagement. The requirement to report on the M&E of engagement and to have good assurance of engagement M&E can be the pin that pricks this bubble.

TW: Your book talks a lot about process. But good examples of engagement are told through storytelling and anecdotes. What’s the balance between process and more organic relationships to strike?

AK: Process is important. It s like the technique you have to learn to play the piano well or to ride a bike. It is only when you have the technique or the process down that you can really begin to play something people want to listen to or to ride competitively.

Also, once you have the technique down you don’t need to think about it. It is there in your muscle memory or wherever. It is your foundation. So once you have an understanding and experience of engagement process and technique you can begin to develop those relationships and stories that work and make sense and bring benefit.

One point we make in the book is that while process is important, understanding the why, the what, the who and the how is more important. Process is just a way to getting to the answers. So following every step of the process correctly is not the purpose.

Winning the race is the purpose. Match the need for process to the purpose. And draw on only as much as you need to succeed.

TW: Which companies do you respect for their approaches to stakeholder engagement, and why?

AK: We respect all companies who engage for the right reasons, do it systematically and then evaluate what they have achieved and look for ways to improve.

You will have noticed that in the book, while there are a large number of stories about the engagement experiences of real companies, we have anonymised these stories. We did this for a very specific reason.

First, we have not done a systematic analysis or index of the engagement practices of the FTSE 250 or the DHSI companies. So we have no defensible benchmark. Secondly, all of the stories are based on the personal experiences of John and I.

We wanted to present the stories as relevant to a better understanding of practice and not necessarily as ‘the’ benchmark for good practice. There are many ratings and indices out there that include stakeholder engagement in their criteria.

In many cases the criteria is as simple as: ‘Do they engage their stakeholders’. We don’t put much credence in these.

It would be fun to do a systematic analysis based on the criteria in the book and then name names. Maybe that’s next.

TW: Is the problem that we often use the wrong language in business? Is there a more effective way to frame “stakeholder engagement” so it’s more meaningful for business?

AK: Language is always a problem, and perhaps too easy an excuse. But it is clear that the term ‘stakeholder engagement’ is interpreted in different and sometimes contradictory ways.

Many people confuse stakeholder engagement with public consultation, while it should more properly include both internal and external stakeholders.

At the same time the term has gained significant currency. The longer it is used as the default term, the harder it becomes to replace it.

As a pragmatist I would suggest we put our efforts into developing a generally accepted definition – such as the one in the book – and put our energies into promulgating that.

More on the book at this link: Smart Engagement: Why, What, Who, How.
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