Rounding Out Our Understanding
I'd like to start out not by laundry-listing the non-sustainability-oriented sources of information which may be of interest to us, but instead examining what we seek to gain from those additional sources of information.
Whether we seek to understand opportunities to deepen relationships with customers, niches within which to innovate and create offerings, or to understand the competitive space, sustainability filings can only reveal part of the overall picture. In fact, while examining only sustainability reports may not actively hinder our research, we may find that our insights lack a certain depth because they rely only on the sustainability viewpoint. I firmly believe that as you gain experience researching or performing fieldwork, you do indeed develop an almost unconscious feel for when the insights are well-developed. I like to say that at a certain point, the insight takes on a certain "bite"... that it stands alone, has a certain crispness of information, and exudes power and verve. It may be hard to explain, but a significant goal of this course is to help develop that feel for when insights have "bite" in yourselves and your colleagues.
(If you ever want to test if your insight really has bite, try to create a one-page infographic centered on it. Something about the infographic format condenses thought and forces interest while adding some narrative... while bad infographics are instantly boring.)
In our efforts to provide a full, unbiased view of the desired topic, it can be beneficial to integrate other sources of research, some which we have briefly before, and some of which may be a bit less conventional. Regardless of the corroborating sources of information, it can be useful to "triple source" to provide a full view of the question at hand.
Triple Sourcing to Help Validate and Deepen Understanding
Far too often, research becomes an effort of finding information that confirms a frame or narrative we already hold. In fact, the clearinghouse of seemingly all initial understanding, Google, tends to underscore this tendency for confirmation (and sloppy research). What may begin as a search for "Ford sustainability" returns an overwhelming set of results, so we may lense it with "Ford sustainability leadership" or "Ford sustainability award."
The most significant liability in any research is that our initial beliefs may cloud or bias our extraction of source information, which will in turn cloud our results and the insights we create. Unfortunately, the effect is especially pronounced as the timelines for research are condensed and searches become even more directed and biased, as we seek to find substantiating information that won't stray from the developing narrative. (If you would like to see this at work on a daily basis, you may notice many media outlets citing Tweets in-line in otherwise journalistic pieces. They support the story's narrative because these supporting "sources" for seemingly any story are only a fraction of a second away.)
Triple sourcing is a quick mechanism which can help us to avoid not only our biases, but also instances of a single statistic or story (usually PR-oriented) potentially coloring our substantiating research. How it works is that we match our primary source for a given piece of information with two secondary sources to test the primary source. This is designed to be in initial screen, as deeper research will likely go far beyond three sources, but it can be very helpful.
Source 1: Primary Source
This is the initial finding of the information you will potentially include in your research. For the sake of argument, let's assume one of the "big three" sources of initial information we will tend to use will be: a GRI-compliant sustainability report, an unstructured CSR, or a company's 10-K filing.
Source 2: Contrarian or Third-Party Source
The goal of this source is specifically to test your primary source. So, if your initial source provided a glowing take on a company's sustainability efforts, your goal for Source 2 is to find third-party information specifically refuting that original source. This is where you may consciously search for biased information, and furthermore, you will consciously slant your search for this source in hopes of unearthing contrarian views or other information. Your goal is to find any information that may bring the first source into question, or otherwise provide depth.
Source 3: A "Voiced" Source of Information
While a voiced source may come from anywhere, I tend to favor those who are not in PR or Communications from the organization. Where the greatest information tends to come from is someone actively working with the area in question, be it an engineer, product manager, or otherwise. Industry publications tend to be excellent for this, as they tend to concentrate on areas of expertise, and not so much on PR posturing. What you are looking for in this source is specifically someone from the organization talking about the topic in question in an unscripted way.
So, if you found an interesting story on worker safety at an organization in their CSR, the ideal would be to find a Safety Manager talking to EHS Today about the tactics the company uses to create such a stellar safety record. What we are looking for is ground-level substantiation of the original source, or otherwise to see any disconnects or "overstatement" in the CSR, for example. The CSR could talk about "a new, proprietary machine safety system reducing injuries" while a safety engineer talks about adding $50 of acrylic sheets to danger areas to prevent people from sticking their fingers in machines at the wrong time.
One note on finding voiced sources: If you see strikingly similar wording between the sources, chances are they're scripted or PR. They may be accurate and valid for our research, but just know that they may be prepared statements.
Some Non-Sustainability Sources of Supplemental Information
Financial Filings, Namely 10-K or Equivalent
As mentioned earlier, these tend to be centered on the shareholder and financial interests of a publicly-traded company, but we see increasing airtime for sustainability information, especially in the Risks section. Where 10-K can be especially valuable for us is in testing if the assertions made in the sustainability filing in fact make it to SEC filings. If the sustainability report alludes to climate change as a major long-term risk to the organization's operations, we would certainly expect to see that fact addressed in the 10-K risks.
General Media and Reporting
Open reporting on a topic is, and will likely remain, a viable source for information. This is certainly no surprise.
Blogs (with significant additional substantiation)
This is a surprise to some, but really should not be. Here's why: they live and die by the posts they publish. Can they be sensationalist or overstated? Absolutely. Can they be expertly written and researched? Absolutely. But, here is where all of that should net out for us: blogs can do very real, very substantial damage to brands, and I would argue that blogs are quite close to NGOs for the potential they can have to disrupt the otherwise normal flow of a sustainability program. The last boycott you read about may have all started with a blog post. Organizations should ignore at their own peril.
For this reason, blogs can also be an excellent media for those contrarian sources we seek in triple sourcing.
PR tends to be interesting no so much for what it can reveal, but for what it may confirm. If you think of PR as the 'sanctioned stream of consciousness' of an organization, it can be interesting to see what themes are carried from CSR or other sources and into PR. Those that do make it have been formally sanctioned by management in the organization as noteworthy and able to be shared at one point or another. This is interesting to us as we may see developing themes in the CSR which are then not part of PR conversations they otherwise would be.
As I mentioned earlier, these can sometimes fly under the PR radar at an organization because they may be related to industry groups, whitepapers, and other discussions. Having someone not speak from "the teleprompter" while talking about issues important to the organization can be especially interesting to us in research and finding opportunity.
LinkedIn and Posted Openings
Finding where people are moving positions and seeking headcount can be a great way to color research or provide another viewpoint. If the company offers a one-liner on their excitement on the new sustainable offering but you see that there are 12 openings posted for product management and support in for that product line, something may be afoot. Similarly, LinkedIn resumes can signal where internal expertise is moving within an organization to support emerging businesses.
Quite literally, anything can potentially be a source of information. From asking a customer service representative when a new product release is happening (gauging if the message has been formalized across the org and if there has been training) to researching the filings of related companies or suppliers for shared themes, some of the least-common sources can be the most valuable.