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Use of Big Data in Corporate Social Responsibility

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Corporate social responsibility with the mantra of ‘do good business by doing good’ became popular in the second half of the last century. The roots of which date back to pre industrial revolution where worker wellbeing, and community welfare were considered as factors influencing productivity.
Today, there are generally four categories in supporting NGOs and volunteers – philanthropic donations, environmental conservation, and progressive labor reform. Also, the focus on environmental conservation initiatives is commendable and a necessary attempt to offset impact. The activities of the CSR department are becoming mainstream as sustainability takes centre stage.
Furthermore, the use of data infrastructure, AI analytics, business intelligence dashboards, aligning strategy with core departments, developing culture, and scale of initiatives will transform CSR departments from the fringes to the core of organisations.

CSR, front and centre

The brand value aspect is a strong lever of corporate social responsibility. Earlier, CSR was merely a pawn to mask the brand image, as there was no price on health or our environment. However, digital and data shifts in the world are transforming organizations, which positively impacts the role of a corporate social responsibility team as well.
Data and information from the CSR teams on social impact metrics such as number of NGOs supported, employee hours volunteered as well as carbon and biodiversity metrics are discussed in overall business strategy meetings. CFOs/ COOs who are tasked with assessing the cost of physical damage to assets or operational disruptions due to climate change need to start budget funds towards social and environmental activities based on data. The increase in roles in the CSR department adding financial, data analytical, and sociology skills is set to see budget allocation, and outcomes change considerably.
The global trend of Net Zero initiatives also places responsibility on corporations to cut emissions and consumption. It ties the overarching strategy to a functional team already within the organisation. Doing good is poised to emerge out of CSR and sustainability departments, into the mainstream strategy of the organization. While the organizations are undergoing tremendous changes with technological, and policy interventions, a paradigm shift towards truly sustainable businesses seems inevitable. Starting with the bottom line approach, the costs of business disruption, due to climate change is also a driver for the sustainability transition.

Measuring both long term and short term impact

The role of a data analyst or data scientist is relevant even for the CSR department to maximize the impact of the projects. Organizations that have embraced the digital revolution start to appreciate the benefits of a data-driven operation. Internal data with privacy regulations, data protection standards and sharing policies power data teams that are growing in every department.
Insights available for decision making highlight defensible strategies of organisations. This is applicable for the sustainability teams moving beyond a spreadsheet for projects. Impact valuation, and monitoring by closely working with social and environmental initiatives meet larger organisation goals.
Carbon sequestration for environmental projects can be monitored using satellite data, and ground measurements feeding data through the data pipelines to dashboards. On the social wellbeing metrics, on-site digital data collection apps can be used to measure education, and health parameters. Impact measurement split into immediate impact to long-term metrics help align the social goals of the organization with overarching business goals.

Creating a culture of impact

A company-wide metric for sales, and profit is considered a north star of peak performance; yearly reports on sustainability are also now a part of these metrics. Current processes of updates are evolving from yearly, to real time monitoring thanks to data.  Employee demand pushes companies to adapt, and integrate a culture of social businesses. The employee and customer demand drivers are responsible for this culture shift. The feedback mechanisms also rely on a reliable, and robust data infrastructure supported by a data team.
A culture of data driven, along with sustainability and nature inclusive thinking will increase resilience of an organization. Climate champions nurtured through awareness can further move the needle of nature inclusive thinking. This can only be accelerated by investing in the right technology and knowledge management.
In essence all businesses are social as they were started with the intention of solving some problem faced by people.

Scaling social good

Great initiatives by companies such as Salesforce with the 1-1-1 model, or Lego with plastic, or Levi’s with worker welfare have set CSR benchmarks. The triple bottomline approach or stakeholder capitalism considering people, planet and profit is great. But the skewed focus must be noticed where a fraction of the business is for the planet and profit. Budget allocation for executive jets or marketing spend on environmental work campaigns is miniscule compared to the funds allocated for CSR. The scale of initiatives will increase as the benefits to business continuity go beyond mere brand image development.
Technology can support the culture, scale, and execution of social and environmental initiatives. There are some challenges with data driven projects due to the R&D nature but can be streamlined with well defined problems. Solutions using data dashboards that can track carbon emissions for climate mitigation, climate risks for adaptation, plastic use for material impact, water and energy efficiency interventions compound impact of social and environmental projects.

Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.

Gagan ReddyThe author Gagan Reddy is a Climate-tech Entrepreneur and Educator working on the intertwined climate-biodiversity crises by combining technology with ecology to realize a safe and green world. Currently working in the Netherlands and India as Founder-CEO of a geospatial data analytics company that helps companies build resilience and adapt to climate risks. As a Global Shaper and Climate Reality leader, there is a strong focus on social impact.

This column appears in the March 2022 edition of our quarterly magazine. To grab your own copy, click here