Companies are today being challenged to engage with stakeholders that do not fit the traditional template of investors, customers, employees and business contacts.
New sets of stakeholders are sought to help the company engage with previously overlooked socioeconomic or cultural groups, while new tools and channels bridge previously-impassable chasms between the company and groups that fall outside the traditional stakeholder sphere.
This development in stakeholder relations helps to explain the approach taken by Germany-headquartered technology firm Siemens, who have initiated what they describe as an “exclusive global community” called Future Influencers. Siemens have created an online think tank that fosters relations between young thought leaders and the venerable conglomerate, and generates ideas on sustainability-related topics like growung cities or the future of energy supply.
As Michael Rossa, senior vice president of customers and prospects at the Communications and Government Affairs Center at Siemens told Communication Director: “In a time where not only communication but also relationships define access to our audiences, Siemens wanted to build a platform where the company could foster honest long-term relationships with future decision makers. For a company like Siemens it is crucial to be in close contact with those people who are or will be our customers and/or influence our business.”
Developed by the company’s communications department (who continue to centrally steer the project), Future Influencers offers the chance for young people from around the globe to take part in invitation-only discussions about sustainability issues. Participants are found either through Siemens’ own research or via members’ recommendations. The criteria are few but firm: members must be under the age of 33, they must be engaged in sustainability matters and they should be very visible in the online space.
For the second criteria, Siemens looks for winners of awards or scholarships or for young entrepreneurs or owners of small green companies. For the third criteria, Siemens looks for topic authority reflected in very active Twitter accounts, blogs, Facebook pages and so on.
So far so good. But what marks out Future Influencers from several other similar youth-oriented, corporate sponsored online platforms is that Siemens has partnered on the project with the Harvard Business Review, adding real expertise to what could otherwise be, presumably, a lot of hot air. “We think the Harvard Business Review is a great partner,” says Rossa, “since our community is based on high-level and sometimes controversial discussions.”
Describing the management magazine – produced by the publishing subsidiary of Harvard University – as a “very academic yet hands-on institution”, Rossa praises the magazine for its ability to enrich the Future Influencers’ discussions with “smart insights and a sense for business development”. The second partner of the project is The World Resources Institute, a non-profit that works in environmental and socio-economic developmental affairs (and whose slogan “making big ideas happen” could almost be taken as a statement of intent for the Future Influencers).
Once entrepreneurial young experts have been cherry-picked by Siemens, they are invited to log onto futureinfluencers.com and encouraged to discuss among each other topics centred around sustainability issues, relevant for Siemens business or linked to global events that somehow involve Siemens (for example, From January 17 until March 6 2014, Future Influencers tackle the question: “New perspectives on the Energy business – challenges and opportunities arising from the changing role of the US”).
Participants are also invited to suggest their own ideas for topics. Discussions are moderated by Siemens’ project manager Sarah Hashish, working out of the social media department, as well as by the project’s partners, whose input usually aims to open up new questions or avenues of discussion. A recent posting by the moderators gives a good indication of the general tone of the undertaking and the encouragement given by Siemens:
“First of all we would like to thank you for your efforts so far. It is very interesting to read your contributions and to watch your discussions on the changing role of the US energy business. We know that is not an easy task to develop ideas for “a new age of power generation”, as we called it in the introduction, but this is one of the big challenges we face at Siemens Energy every day. So, we are highly interested in exchanging ideas and thoughts with you. Of course, we cannot rise to this challenge alone and it is therefore no coincidence that we put this question on the agenda now. (…) So, keep up the great work you are doing here ...”
Gaining authentic insights
These discussions take place once or twice a year and last for approximately six to eight weeks: the aim is to create and develop a project idea together to be presented at the end of each collaboration. These “top ideas” are conceptualised by the members and three selected community representatives are invited by Siemens to present the final concept at a sustainability event of global importance: past examples include the UN Climate Change Conferences or Rio +20.
These presentations usually take place in the form of a panel debate with members of Future Influencers alongside established experts and members of Siemen’s top management. The presentation of the best idea is web streamed live via the channels of the Harvard Business Review (with lots of accompanying Twitter activity), and the final results are then presented and widely distributed in a whitepaper also published by the Review.
Regardless of the outcomes of the debates, Future Influencers seems to offer its participants the kind of opportunity not readily available to their peers: they get access to a network of likeminded people who are already deeply involved in sustainability entrepreneurship, as well as to the kind of insights and content that would come at a premium anywhere else – on top of this they gain visibility and experience. In turn, Siemens enjoys fresh thoughts and data, increased digital footprint (Future Influencers can be found on Twitter, Facebook and Google plus), as well as a significant young presence of Siemens at sustainability events.
When asked how Siemens benefits, Michael Rossa says: “We are interested in gaining authentic insights and learning about different perspectives.” He says that, up to board level, the company has been inspired by exchanging ideas with younger influencers, “even if their thoughts are sometimes idealistic or very ambitious – this is how innovation begins.”
As well as creating a well-supported space for important issues and ideas to be explored with the backing of experts in the field, Future Influencers is also a sign that Siemens is one company that understands the urgency of reaching out to those non-traditional stakeholders. As Rossa puts it: “We believe that as a company you need to be interested in listening what others have to say and learning from them. Or even better, with them.”