I’m back on the regional conference circuit at the moment, and it’s awash with talk about “scale” and “impact”.
Sound-bite central, indeed, with events I’ve attended recently also still obsessing with how to achieve scale and impact by working in “partnerships”. As suggested in my last post we need to look beyond semantics in the sustainability arena, and instead get real about what some of these terms actually mean as, all too often, our preoccupation with the vernacular distracts us from action.
The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have included “global partnerships” as their 17th Goal. The proof of authenticity around what the UN thinks can be achieved with this Goal will be revealed over time. However, right now, it seems to me that if you are not talking about “scaling your programmes”, or “measuring the impact” of your efforts (in terms of playing a positive role in society) then you are not “on message” – and that, for many, is a public relations cardinal sin.
I am not opposing the logic behind using a partnership approach (combining resources and efforts with others to reach some kind of mutually beneficial outcome) nor challenging the premise that to fulfill SDG objectives we do, clearly, need to reach more people (which is only one definition of scale) and understand better how to positively bring about change in the long term (impact). These statements cannot be too heavily contested on the surface – particularly when faced with the size of the social and environmental problems at hand.
My critique to other development colleagues, and to those I’ve met at some of these conferences, would be that we move away from sound-bite statements, and focus instead on being proactive about piloting and getting on with implementing.
Proactive corporate policy change by a company, for example, that will actually bring about better conditions for factory workers in the region. Why is this not happening more deliberately and at any kind of scale? We’ve had two global pieces of legalese quickly emerge following the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, yet conditions, welfare, and prejudice around the role of factory workers remains the same. Low wages, long hours, and low status in the workplace characterise how workers are perceived by factory owners, and the global buyers who continue to drive inequality up and down supply chains by demanding cheaper manufacturing costs, and who refuse to commit to long term formal contracts with factories.
Simultaneously, let’s see much more active lobbying by NGOs to lobby with others in the sector and call for fairer wages, decent hours, and benefits for the same factory workers. We need more joined up campaigning around the additional pressures young female workers are under – women who face societal and workplace discrimination around the tasks and responsibilities they can carry out, and who are exposed to vulnerabilities, as they are all too often forced to leave their homes and travel to urban centres to earn income for their children and extended family.
When we know explicitly what the underlying dynamics are, in the case of factory workers, then why are we not yet taking interventions to scale, or promoting policy which might actually affect change for the hundreds of thousands of workers battling with these dynamics around Asia?
Conferencing can offer a safe space to have these discussions, and yet these spaces will only be looked back on in the future as productive if we can identify real action coming out of them, and I don’t see that to be happening.
Instead, I find conferences are stuck in the mud over re-framing topics such as collaboration, measurement, impact and scale – each seasonally repackaged and gifted the usual platitudes. “Recommendations” are made, impassioned speeches by token community representatives (identifiable from long range due to their lack of business attire) are delivered, delegates applaud and then shuffle off for their free cocktails and networking.
But, let me not pen an entire blog with skeptical waffling. Conference and Forum platforms which bring a mix of practitioners and experiences together should not be deterred from their practice, per se. It is important to share ideas and leverage opportunities to hear about what others are doing. We need to come together in person to challenge assumptions, to inspire new ideas. I simply feel the duplication of content too often flattens the quality of our moments together with others, and that, when up in front of 200 people, spokespeople hardly ever take the opportunity to be honest with their audiences, and duck away from holding their organisations to account on following through on things.
Admitting failure on stage to a room full of people ready to tweet something interesting to the world doesn’t come naturally, of course. Answering direct questions with direct, honest answers, also only really remains the domain of children under the age of ten years old. The additional twist here comes when opening and closing panel discussions include the big hitting, crowd pulling senior executives – the bigger the exec, the harder to extract from them anything more than standard, PR riddled corporate rebuttals to more searching lines of enquiry.
So what have I learnt recently about the concept of scale?
That it comes in different guises – policy change, replicable programmes across different contexts, new funding investments, industry level commitments to responsible practices, use of technology, and so on – and that, collaborating with others can (when done well, and resourced properly) helps. A lot. That scale can be upwards as well as outwards, but that it can also be defined in terms of deepening an organisation’s understanding of an issue or a way of working.
The neatest nugget on scale – in spite of all these other aspects (none of which are new) – that I took away from an event in Singapore last week, was from a few minutes honest chat with a company who readily spurted out that the most pressing issue they were tackling was “retaining staff due to a lack of career development”.
The company in question, it was explained to me, can pontificate all day long about scale and impact and partnerships with others, but their reality is that they are failing to adequately launch and carry out any new activities which reflect their public statements on sustainability issues, because they are too preoccupied recruiting new employees and investing profits into HR systems, (and on change management consultants to advise them on their own employee well-being and development policies.)
As someone I worked with in London once remarked to me on the subject of staff surveying and motivations in the workplace – “just pay people properly and give them recognition for their work, and you are halfway to securing their commitment to the organisation”.
In some ways then, what I did learn from that particular day on the circuit, on the issue of scale, is that bringing in knowledge to an organisation, and investing in your people, can just as meaningfully result in scaling what it is your organisation defines in the sustainability box. And, ideally beyond this, what it goes on to actually DO on the outside.
When addressing how to achieve scale then, looking within an organisation at your ‘human capital’ (another popular phrase in the rubric) and placing genuine value on the good old fashioned idea that your organisation is “only as good as the people working in it” might perhaps be the one authentic place for you to start.