Laura Gitman, Managing Director, Advisory Services, BSR

Several years ago, I flew to Guadalajara to facilitate a meeting of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a group that, at the time, comprised approximately 40 companies, representing five tiers of the supply chain from retailers and electronics brands to contract manufacturers, all the way down to raw materials. Soon after the meeting got started, the group reached an impasse, and I ended up throwing out the entire agenda and shifting the discussion to what had led each company to commit to working together in the first place. The approach worked, and the EICC moved past the roadblock and has since become a committed, established organization with more than 75 member companies that work together to improve conditions in the global electronics supply chain.

In my eight years at BSR, I have been involved in many types of networks, and, as we prepare to celebrate the Power of Networks at the BSR Conference 2013, I have been thinking about the various experiences I have had with sustainability networks.

This story about the EICC underscores the typical experience of network-based change: It can take time to get everyone on board, but there is a powerful opportunity to make progress once that happens. I’ve facilitated collaborations in the electronics, pharmaceutical, media, and consumer products sectors, and they have several common themes. Driving change through a network is usually much slower than through single company actions, and the change typically doesn’t follow a linear path. Consensus-building, patience, creativity, and a focus on core principles help networks move beyond discussions to create impact.

The strength of a network is rooted in the knowledge, experience, and critical relationships that are often within the group. While it was important to the EICC to invite external perspectives and engage with different types of stakeholders, we didn’t have theoretical discussions about how suppliers might react; the suppliers were members of the group. This approach is critical to driving systemic change across an entire industry.

Working groups and other collaborative initiatives continue to be an important way that we drive progress at BSR, but we also use stakeholder networks on a daily basis to help individual companies understand key issues, improve performance, and create new products or services. When I first started at BSR, companies typically had very transactional relationships with stakeholders—asking them to provide one-off feedback and at times forming specific, project-based partnerships.

Today, I see leading companies that understand the need to build long-term, multidimensional relationships with stakeholders. One example is Western Union, with whom BSR worked to design and facilitate a process for the company to engage with external experts to identify solutions for social needs that also might grow its business. To date, we’ve held two summits, the first of which generated 20 new product and service ideas addressing educational needs. As a result, last year, Western Union’s “Education for Better” program was announced on the floor of the United Nations. Western Union took a risk with this approach, but it has helped the company build a long-term network of stakeholders that will help them push for social change, and reap business rewards as well.

There are many similar examples of how BSR and our member companies build and use networks, but perhaps the most important point is the opportunity to explore the BSR member network itself. Our global network of more than 250 companies includes thousands of individuals, each with their own personal and professional networks. I am excited to experience the power of these networks—live!—at the BSR Conference 2013. I hope to see you (and your network) in San Francisco this November.