Nicole Lew - How Do Companies Filter Out the “Noise” from Stakeholder Engagement?





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Mar 18, 2019
by Nicole Lew
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Nicole Lew - How Do Companies Filter Out the “Noise” from Stakeholder Engagement?

Technology presents new ways and opportunities for engaging with stakeholders and identifying new issues and risks. For this month’s Salzburg Question for Corporate Governance, Alibaba general counsel asks given the sheer volume of information, how do we filter out the “noise” and identify what is most critical?  Nicole Lew speaks at the 2018 program Brave New World: How Can Corporate Governance Adapt?

This article is part of the series, the Salzburg Questions for Corporate Governance by the Salzburg Global Corporate Governance Forum. Join in the discussion online on LinkedIn.

The rise of high-speed internet and its widespread adoption by users, particular on the mobile end, has greatly increased the capacity for high frequency interactions across geographies. This has provided companies with new ways and opportunities for engaging with their stakeholders. Some examples include:

  • Organizing stakeholder meetings and forums through event websites or video-conferencing; 
  • Using virtual reality models to allow customers to experience products or services pre-launch to gather feedback for fine-tuning;
  • Using online platforms to crowdsource ideas for new products, services or projects, e.g., the Lego Ideas platform that allows customers to submit ideas for Lego builds; 
  • Using social media, emails, etc., to update stakeholders of recent developments;
  • Allowing employees to provide anonymous feedback, e.g., Walt Disney’s use of Laborlink, a mobile solution that enables workers to report on factory conditions.

At the same time as many companies are using these means as a way of improving their engagement with stakeholders, stakeholders are also using technology as a highly effective way of amplifying their own voices, and winning support for their concerns or demands. Thus, a well-known company might find that there are not just online forums where customers are reviewing its products and services, but also online forums where employees are reviewing its company culture or social media platforms where people are commenting on its environmental impact or business practices, etc. 

Accordingly, given the sheer volume of information, companies may be concerned about how to filter out the “noise” and identify what is most critical.

At this point, we must realize that technology itself is not the main problem. Technology has accelerated the pace of communications, such that companies now have to process and deal with more information from stakeholders more quickly, and the rapid creation of networks has expanded the sets of stakeholders that companies have to manage, meaning that companies have to operate in an increasingly complex environment. However, technology has also driven efficiencies as well as more value creation, arguably enabled by the wider and deeper stakeholder engagement.

Thus the answer to how to filter out the “noise” and identifying what is most critical really lies in going back to the basics of stakeholder engagement themselves.

  1. Be clear about what you are trying to achieve through stakeholder engagement. E.g., there could be a particular project for which you are trying to get support. Or you could be trying to engage employees to increase their satisfaction, improve retention and build a reputation as a desirable employer. 
  2. Identify the stakeholders who are the most relevant for that purpose and prioritize them. It is not just the loudest or those you know best who should be heard. Anyone affected by your business is arguably a stakeholder, but they will differ in terms of their extent of interest and their influence and impact. Accordingly, some may need to be managed closely, while others may need to be kept regularly or occasionally informed.
  3. Choose appropriate engagement strategies and tools for different categories of stakeholders. E.g., while websites providing information updates may be adequate for interested stakeholders who do not currently have much influence, and can ensure that no major issues are arising that would motivate such stakeholders to become problematic later on, this might not be appropriate for interested stakeholders who are active and are strong opinion leaders. In the latter case, you may need to have much deeper engagement through video-conferencing or forums to get their feedback more promptly, or use virtual reality tools to test scenarios with them. Technology can also help with aggregating and analyzing stakeholder feedback. 

At the end of the day though, stakeholder engagement is about managing relationships through better communications. Technology can make stakeholder engagement more inclusive, creative and collaborative but it is merely a tool (albeit a very powerful) one to further that process. For the most important stakeholders raising the most relevant issues, in-person dialogues will still be needed. Ultimately, to be successful, companies must be prepared to integrate stakeholder input into the decision-making process, and to make changes. 

Have an opinion? 

We encourage readers to share your comments by joining in the discussion on LinkedIn

Nicole Lew is the general counsel and company secretary of Alibaba Health Information Technology Limited, the healthcare flagship of Alibaba Group. Prior to joining Alibaba Group, Nicole worked at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer from 2006 to 2014, advising on capital markets and M&A transactions in Asia. She was admitted as a solicitor of the High Court of Hong Kong in 2008 and is a current member of the Law Society of Hong Kong. Nicole obtained an LL.B. Laws honors degree from University College London and is qualified to practice law in England and Wales.

The Salzburg Questions for Corporate Governance is an online discussion series introduced and led by Fellows of the Salzburg Global Corporate Governance Forum. The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters, and do not necessarily represent the views of their corporations or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. Readers are welcome to address any questions about this series to Forum Director, Charles E. Ehrlich: To receive a notification of when the next article is published, follow Salzburg Global Seminar on LinkedIn or sign up for email notifications here: 

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