Today’s results from the fifth annual BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey 2013 underscore one message loud and clear: the importance of collaboration in addressing critical sustainability challenges. The timing of the results couldn’t be better, given the “Power of Networks” theme that we’ll be celebrating next week at the BSR Conference 2013 in San Francisco.

Representing input from more than 700 business leaders from BSR’s global member network, the survey reveals that collaboration occurs most regularly and easily with NGOs, industry organizations, and other companies. Collaboration with government is seen as most difficult (though very important). And while the survey highlights the need for business to engage with external stakeholders in addressing critical global sustainability issues, it also reveals important findings about another form of collaboration that is critical to achieving sustainability: internal collaboration with core business functions. 

Results reveal that significant integration of sustainability has taken place only within approximately one in five companies surveyed. Engagement between sustainability functions and core corporate functions actually decreased over the past two years for a number of strategic functions.This represents a significant challenge to truly integrating sustainability into corporate strategy and to ensuring that external collaborations are successful. Fewer than 50 percent of sustainability executives rated the following functions as engaged in their work: operations, legal, investor relations, finance, R&D, HR, marketing, or strategic planning. It is also noteworthy that only 45 percent of respondents rated their board as being engaged in their sustainability priorities.

When we think about networks, we often focus on the external ones—and it is true that the sustainable business community engages in a great deal of valuable public-private partnerships, stakeholder engagement, and industry collaboration. Yet when we review these findings, it appears as though more foundational networks still need to be built within companies.

Quite often, we hear from our members that they feel isolated in their efforts within their own company and that they work more often with external partners than their colleagues. This year’s survey reinforces this sentiment. External collaboration is important to driving systemic change on issues such as human rights and climate change, but internal engagement is just as vital to ensuring that a company’s policies, processes, and products are aligned with critical sustainability objectives. Sometimes it pays to keep the focus close to home—and to build collaboration from within.