It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing sustainability as a purely ethical concern—of thinking that organisations have only a moral imperative to care about the future of the planet. And while that moral imperative certainly exists, it is far from the only reason that these topics matter. Understood properly, the principles of sustainability can help organisations not only to ensure the long-term survival of their business and the planet, but can also act as a positive enabler of growth, helping them see new opportunities that otherwise would have remained elusive.
Jen Rodvold is Sopra Steria’s Head of Digital Ethics & Tech for Good, and Oliver Reed is Head of Consulting for SSCL, a joint venture between Sopra Steria and the UK Cabinet Office; both have a keen interest in helping clients understand the sustainability agenda to its fullest extent. We spoke to them about why sustainability matters, and how their firm is helping clients meet their ethical obligations while also taking advantage of new opportunities.
At Sopra Steria, how have you chosen to define what ‘sustainability’ means to you?
Jen: The thinking around sustainability in business has matured a lot over the last few years. It has moved beyond thinking that sustainability just means environmental concerns, to balancing social, economic and environmental issues through business. The introduction of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals made it clearer for organisations outside the sphere of Government and international development to see how their businesses were contributing to the most important challenges of our time. Although there's more work to do, organisations are starting to see sustainability as part of their core business, not something that is separate. There are real business benefits to be had for addressing sustainability issues in this way.
A lot of organisations still talk about corporate social responsibility (CSR). I personally try to avoid that framework, because I think it encourages people to think about sustainability in the wrong way. CSR is too often reactive and not strategically aligned. Instead you should be thinking about the sustainability of your own organisation as a going concern, but while recognising that economic, social and environmental factors have a direct impact on that going concern. Sustainability done that way will get you to prioritise your actions based both on shorter-term benefits, such as employee engagement and cost savings, to longer-term areas like the need all organisations have to operate in a functional society with well-educated people, strong infrastructure, and a clean environment.
Oliver: Sustainability, to me, is about really understanding what it is that your business does. It's about knowing what you do, how you do it, and what the impact of it is, and then assessing all of that through a specific set of lenses.
In sustainability, there seems to be a fine line between advising and preaching. In my view, consultants have to be careful to avoid doing too much of the latter; our role is to help set parameters and give guidance, not to preach.
So, is there an important ethical component in your conception of sustainability?
Jen: Digital ethics is very different from traditional business ethics. When we talk to our clients about digital ethics, we're not just helping them look at traditional compliance issues like anti-bribery and anti-corruption policies. Instead, we're helping them to set their own ethical parameters and frameworks based on their digital strategy, their business strategy, and the impact that their organisation has on all of its stakeholders. We don't go to our clients with a presupposed set of principles and obligations. What we are trying to do is help them de-risk their technology programmes and align their whole business strategy to a digital programme—and to help them think holistically and ethically about the consequences of those programmes.
Too often, businesses have looked at new technologies—things like social media, automation, and AI—in a vacuum, seeing them only as tools to achieve specific short-term business objectives. Now there is growing awareness that, along with the promise of tremendous benefits of technology, there can be negative consequences to some technologies when used at scale. In my view, more organisations ought to think about that context, and try to make sure that the way they use those technologies is consistent with their values, and those we share as a society.
Oliver: For me, the concept of ethics is closely tied to survivability. Ethics is what enabled us, as a species, to survive and thrive; if we hadn't invented ethics, we'd be simply incapable of working together with each other in a productive way. That's why we think it's so important that we work with our clients to help them define their own ethical frameworks, and to understand what ethics means to them in a digital context. That needs to be done not only within individual companies, but also at the ecosystem level—after all, a shared ethical framework remains essential if you want to facilitate meaningful and impactful collaboration between different parties.
And do you think that, as well as the ethical dimension, there’s also an opportunity agenda at the heart of this topic?
Jen: To paraphrase Peter Drucker, every social problem is a business opportunity waiting to be addressed. That philosophy informs what we do in digital ethics: if you look for the potential benefits of integrating ethics into your business and digital strategies, there is a real business case there. A lot of the work that we do as a firm revolves around helping clients put together a business case for digital ethics—one that acknowledges both the risks and the opportunities that thinking about these ethical issues can throw up.
What can businesses do to best set themselves up to start to take advantage of those opportunities?
Jen: It's pretty well established by now that more successful organisations are better at operating in a wider ecosystem and building creative partnerships. As organisations really work to make their sustainability strategies part of their business strategies, that ecosystem and partnership working will be key. We've seen this ourselves first hand; we work with charities and social enterprises not just to deliver our Tech for Good programme but also in delivering solutions to customers.
Oliver: Sustainable businesses don't just know how to collaborate with other organisations; they also foster a spirit of collaboration at the individual and the team level. We've certainly tried to do that ourselves here at Sopra Steria. For example, when COVID started to emerge, I went to my boss and told him that I thought we needed to put a cross-functional team together to coordinate our response to it; and he trusted me enough to let me do it. And as a result of that trust, we were able to set up initiatives in our business that made us much better prepared when the pandemic fully hit.
Do you think that the COVID-19 crisis has illustrated to organisations the importance of thinking about sustainability in terms of both ethics and opportunities?
Jen: There's been an enormous amount of creative problem-solving over the last few months as a response to COVID, from organisations 'going digital' for the first time in the space of a few weeks, to organisations repurposing to be part of the solution to the crisis, even if they weren't in key sectors like healthcare. But some of that work has been, by necessity, reactive in nature rather than strategic. The challenge now is to keep up that creative energy, but refocus on the longer-term.
The organisations that have responded to COVID most effectively have been the ones with a truly purpose-driven culture. They have been able to rely on their people's commitment and drive to get through the crisis more than organisations without that sense of purpose. I think some organisations have found a renewed sense of purpose, too, and will benefit in the future if they can sustain that vision.
Were you worried that COVID might lead to a deprioritisation of sustainability, as organisations have to focus on just getting through the short-term?
Jen: There is always the question: Will things like sustainability and digital ethics get deprioritised in a crisis? But if anything, we've seen the opposite; our clients are still going forward with their sustainability and digital ethics plans, because the crisis has brought so many sustainability and ethics issues to the fore, and they recognise the importance of thinking in terms of something bigger than ourselves. There's also widespread acknowledgement that the digital transformation agenda is going to accelerate in response to COVID—and I see a role for Sopra Steria to help our clients put people and society at the centre of their digital strategy and to build for the long-term.
I certainly think it's possible that COVID will, in the long-run, see organisations integrating sustainability and ethics into their business—but it will take sustained effort. We're still in a divisive political climate, and there is pressure to prioritise short-term cost savings. However, we are seeing more and more organisations putting their social purpose, ethics and sustainability at the centre of their plans for whatever the new normal is.
What specific role do you see for consulting firms in helping clients respond to some of those challenges that COVID has created?
Jen: There is an increased focus on automation since the start of COVID that will continue. There's going to be a lot of work for consulting firms in helping clients to set up and implement RPA programmes within their organisations. However, I think it's important that we approach that work in the right way. Automation shouldn't start with a technology proposition. It shouldn't even start with a pure cost saving agenda. Instead, it should be motivated by a desire to create value for the business, and it should be done with an awareness of the wider impact on people and society. Organisations should think about how they will preserve institutional knowledge, how they will sustain a talent pipeline, how technology can complement and support company culture and values as they plan for automation.
Oliver: Firms like ours have a major role to play as we move into the recovery phase of this pandemic. Because we work across Europe, we've been able to use the learnings from working with clients in Germany—who have been two to three weeks ahead of many other countries—to help clients in other markets as their respective governments start to ease their lockdowns. And we've been able to leverage our networks and our connections to get people from different sectors around the same table, talking about the same problems. We're not going to our clients and saying, 'We have all the answers, and here's a service we want to sell you'. Instead, we're trying to create a platform for collaboration, and promote cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge at this critical moment in time.
Do you think the experience of living through COVID will make clients think differently about what it means to build an organisation fit for the future?
Jen: Business continuity and disaster recovery plans only ever come to life once they've been tested. Business continuity plans can be quite dry and technical—with a lot of focus on the infrastructure and technology element. But this crisis has made companies realise that business continuity plans need to be about people every bit as much as they're about physical or digital infrastructure. Working from home, for example, isn't just a technology challenge; it's a people challenge as well. All of these problems that previously seemed academic and abstract have now started to look a lot more human and a lot more complex than they did before.
Oliver: Before COVID, we were already seeing a pushback against globalisation; nations were starting to think about themselves and their own interests more than they were thinking about the international context. And I worry that COVID will only accelerate that trend. For a business like us that operates on a European scale, we have to think about how we respond to that. At Sopra Steria, we've decided it's important that we maintain a strong set of cross-national ethical values, and avoid breaking down into a national sub-units with their own set of values.
COVID-19 has thrown into relief a lot of risk register items—and it's made clients realise that there were dimensions of those risks that they'd never previously considered. Take working from home, for example. Lots of people work from home occasionally without any issues—but once the majority of your workforce is working from home five days a week, suddenly it becomes a huge challenge to maintain the physical and mental wellbeing of your entire workforce. The lesson from all of this going forward is that more organisations ought to think about sustainability not just in terms of their physical infrastructure and their supply chains, but in terms of the human dimension as well.
So, do you see these questions about sustainability and resilience as, fundamentally, people-centric ones?
Oliver: The resilience of an organisation to external crises is determined, more than anything else, by the core values of that organisation. Ultimately, your ability to respond to a crisis is going to be dependent on the people in your organisation—and if you do right by your employees, then your employees will do right by you. If everyone knows exactly what they are there to do and knows that they're trusted to get on and do it without being micromanaged, then that will give you the ability to operate in a more agile way. And if you've taken the time to foster an entrepreneurial spirit among your employees and to facilitate their curiosity, then you'll be better able to carve out a path that gets you through whatever crisis you're dealing with.
At its core, resiliency is about being adaptable; not just sitting there and soaking up stress until a situation resolves itself, but instead responding to that situation proactively. And the question of how you make your organisation adaptable is fundamentally a people question. You have to give your people the safety to think and explore within a culture of controlled curiosity. If your people feel that they have the space to explore new ideas and feel that they are trusted to do so, then that will roll up into your business and help you become a more agile and adaptable organisation.
Do you think that the pandemic will have any long-term consequences on the way that clients buy consulting work?
Oliver: We've generally seen that our clients have become more cost and value conscious because of COVID—and many of the smaller and mid-sized businesses are starting to act a lot more like a single entity when it comes to strategy and implementation. We're not dealing with dozens of different buying centres anymore; instead, it's all about the relationship you have at the C-level. I think the firms that are best positioned to win work right now are the ones that know how to balance short-term tactical interventions with longer-term strategic thinking, and that know how to build relationships at the C-suite level and hold the hands of those stakeholders as they figure out what the 'new normal' looks like for their business.
Lastly: We’ve focused primarily on the question of how clients are thinking about these topics, but of course consulting firms also have to think about their ethical obligations and the question of building for the future. How have you applied this thinking to your own organisation?
Jen: I'm quite proud of the work that we've done at Sopra Steria on sustainability. We've been able to make massive reductions in our overall carbon footprint, and we've been consistently listed in the top ranks globally for our performance against climate change benchmarks. We've been leaders in integrating sustainability and social value into our services for customers, helping us to win business and recognition. We launched our new Digital Ethics & Tech for Good practice this year and have defined a framework for Digital Ethics for the Group to help clients and our own people understand digital ethics issues. Through our Tech for Good programme we're building new solutions to address social issues, such as addressing workforce displacement. We're working with charities to address issues of social mobility and diversity by offering peer-to-peer mentorship programmes for young people and teach schoolchildren about principles of sustainable innovation and entrepreneurship.
Our Tech for Good programme is an example of the way we think about sustainability. It is designed to align our core capabilities as a digital services company to our social purpose, so that we have an even greater positive impact. Through it we incubate new solutions to social concerns, and use our 'people power' to support communities, charities and social enterprises to achieve their missions through pro-bono consulting, hackathons, workshops, and education initiatives.