How can companies effectively engage with stakeholders? That was the theme of a recent panel I participated in at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s “Sustainable Corporation” conference.

I’ve played a facilitation role during the creation of two collaborative initiatives in the technology industry—the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and the Global Network Initiative (GNI)—and both have taken wildly different approaches to stakeholder engagement. So I thought a compare-and-contrast of the two would inform the panel’s discussion.

The EICC is a group of more than 50 electronics companies promoting high labor, ethics, and environmental standards in their supply chains. Industry-run, the organization consults with stakeholders, but all decisions are made by companies.

By contrast, the GNI comprises three companies (Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft), nine human rights organizations, five investor organizations, and four academics seeking to protect freedom of expression and privacy online. Unlike at the EICC, non-companies at the GNI have 50 percent of the votes at the board level and are joint decision-makers with companies.

A comparison between the organizations is perhaps a little unfair, since the GNI is four years younger than the EICC. However, I think observations can be made against three criteria:

  1. How they get things done: My preconception was that an industry-led initiative would be more nimble than a multi-stakeholder one. In fact, both organizations have struggled for speed. Collaboration is difficult no matter what configuration of interests is at the table.
  2. How they have impact: There are many ways to address impact, but let me take one: the ability to generate momentum and critical mass in the industry. Here, the EICC has clearly had an easier time than the GNI, which (for reasons more complex than a short blog can manage) has struggled to recruit new companies. The EICC, by contrast, is blessed with a diverse and rapidly growing membership that positions the organization well for substantial impact.
  3. How they approach collaboration: The scale of shared learning and collaboration taking place in the GNI has broken down considerable barriers between companies and stakeholders in ways not witnessed in the EICC. Once there were stakeholders who didn’t know a great deal about technology, and technology companies who, frankly, didn’t know a great deal about human rights. Today, a growing community of experts in both is being formed—a significant development given the increasing importance of technology in our pursuit of human rights today.

The EICC and GNI have achieved a great deal in their short existence, and I see them both playing critical roles for years to come. It is only through collaboration among diverse but interconnected organizations that our big sustainability challenges can be addressed.

However, both organizations would be well-advised to overhaul their approaches to stakeholder participation and apply the lessons of real-life experience. If I were asked to identify one key improvement point for each organization, it would be these: For the GNI, simplify (not weaken) your accountability and governance mechanisms to increase industrywide participation. For the EICC, increase the participation of external stakeholders in your efforts to address shared challenges.