Last week the socially responsible investment community equivalent of the Oscars – the annual review of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) was unveiled and for the first time SAP has taken the lead in CSR performance for the software sector. It’s certainly a cause for celebration but maybe it’s more an occasion for Sekt than Cristal. Although the software industry is closing ground, it still lags the technology sector and the DJSI overall.
On the surface of it this seems counter intuitive. Surely if there is one industry naturally disposed to sustainability it ought to be the software industry. I am bias, but I can imagine no other industry that has done more to harness and multiply the human intellect for the benefit of the many. It is ubiquitous, part of every aspect of your life from sun up to sun down, always there making stuff work better, cheaper, faster with the least amount of resources. It enables and empowers both the individual and the collective. Software has been instrumental to global economic development for decades and arguably our expanding global economy and it’s connectivity could not flourish without it. Admittedly it’s easy to overlook how software contributes to quality of life but try to imagine your life without it. Software has also been an important enabler of civil society – how could the press, NGO’s, pressure groups and private citizens today possibly do without software as a tool to enable them to be the much needed watchdogs over government and business?
So why the apparent disconnect on sustainability? I think there are two major reasons. From the outside in, without a traditional physical manufacturing supply chain and distribution system it is less obvious how to assess the sector’s overall contribution to and impact on global sustainability nor is it necessarily easy to measure progress over time. And because software leads on innovation it takes time for society to understand the implications of new technology so societal judgment remains in perpetual suspension.
From the inside out it is equally difficult to see how and where to engage and perhaps we suffer a complacency to assume the industry is on the side of the angels, delivering only solutions and not problems. That is not to say that the industry does not appreciate the impact of technology on society and there are certainly issues of real concern such as access, security and privacy well recognised. But it is more difficult in the software industry to incrementally measure progress on these issues in the way one can measure a reduced physical impact of a retailers supply chain or the rate of generation of alternative energy sources. These issues can also constitute real flip side social dilemmas such as privacy v transparency, access v security which can make easy non financial metrics just a bit more elusive.
So what to do? The industry needs to catch up with the broader corporate community, prepare CSR reports to GRI standards of non financial reporting and have them assured for materiality to societal stakeholders. How do we find out what is materially important to society? We need to come out from behind the firewall and dialgoue in a meaningful way with concerned stakeholders not just about what is important to us but also about what is important to them. We can begin to make these connections on CSR now starting with the tools we know best in web 2.0. Hugh MacLeod has shown how easy it can be to start these conversations with his blue monster concept. How about industry vendor CSR blogs? It’s not as if we can say we don’t have the bandwidth.
I think the prevailing perception as reflected in indices such as the DJSI, fair or not, will soon change. The need to co-innovate, to collaborate and communicate in an increasingly community based industry will drive more openness, understanding, dialogue and public accountability in the software sector. The new generation of millennial workers, digital natives as they are, will not least demand this of us either as users, employees or both. The spirit of social media and web 2.0 will be a powerful force to push the software industry out of the shadows on CSR and the industry wil be all be the better for it.