Odin and the myth of survey fatigue


According to Norse mythology, the God Odin relied upon two ravens – Huginn and Moninn – to bring him information. As the Norse God associated with wisdom and knowledge ‘information’ was the lifeblood on which his intellectual powers were based and he relied upon the services of the ravens, amongst other creatures, to help maintain his intellectual powers. One of Odin’s perpetual fears was that the birds may not return from their daily flights leaving him bereft of information and, with it, an erosion of his divine power. To counter this, he made sure they captured as much information as they could.

As the ravens sat loyally on Odin’s shoulders imparting information on a daily basis one can easily picture the asserted power this provided. After all, knowledge is power, right? In my view, it’s not too far removed from the every day in ESG terms where we still find gatherers of ESG information constantly surveying their Midgard for data, largely focused on ‘how much’ rather than ‘how useful’. Or, to put it another way, blithely accepting that ‘more is more’.

And herein lies the problem.

In today’s world, the constant flow of information into ESG consumers is vital but it is the contextualised information that stands to make the difference. In other words, how relevant to your sustainability objectives are the surveys you are issuing and how applicable to meeting those objectives are the respondents you are contacting for this information? If you’re intent on simply collecting and harvesting volumes of data then not only do your sustainability goals become much harder to validate, they run an extremely high risk of becoming meaningless. No ESG professional would want to be putting their name to it. So, why then, is it still an industry-wide problem?

For me, it stems from an urge to ‘do the right thing’ but all too often is based on a lack of knowledge or appreciation of the complexities involved in getting hold of the right data. Like it or not ‘sustainability’ is a very dynamic, highly interrelated and context-specific seam that runs through pretty much every aspect of an organisation and its supply chain. This inevitably makes it inherently complex and tricky to navigate leading to an almost stupefying reaction. Subsequently, you can find yourself very quickly issuing data requests endlessly circling, and in many cases trawling, for the right information on which to report progress, analyse risk or prepare for the future.

As a consequence, it became very easy to criticise platform providers such as Ecodesk for contributing to ‘survey fatigue’ and – trust me on this one – the majority of us providing such services are deeply opposed to issuing them for their own sake. I’ve seen too many poor examples of lengthy, dysfunctional and irrelevant surveys in the ESG space which has depressed enthusiasm for collaboration, mainly because the recipient argues that the questions, scoring and evaluation bear so little resemblance to their organisation. This is particularly acute in supply chains.

Certainly, one could argue standards, protocols and frameworks are one way to help converge differing questions sets and data inputs but the unintended consequence of this is to spawn various ratings and rankings in an attempt to make sense of the data. Nothing is necessarily wrong with that approach but what it fails to do is allow for organisations to rapidly move the needle across their operations and through their supply chains. What has become very obvious to me is that we have a duty to allow enterprises to reflect onto one another their particular issues and their ability to take positive action. In order for this to happen, we must all place careful consideration on the ESG intelligence we need and can actually put it to good use. Failure to do so will continue to disenfranchise otherwise engaged actors who really could be the agents of change.

So, the time has come to bring about a change in which, yes, we might see more surveys overall but I’d wager with you they’ll be smaller, smarter and more effective. It is important, if not crucial with the limited amount of time we have to set the world on a truly sustainable path, to make sure it is one where we ensure that the information we create and share is relevant, converged and most of all, trustworthy.

If I were Odin, I’d be tasking those ravens very differently today…