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Let’s start this with the ever-so-slightly ironic question – what does survey fatigue mean to you? There are of course many often used adjectives employed to describe it – weariness, overload, repetition, timewasting, unnecessary are probably some of the most commonly applied ones. There is no doubting that anyone subject to repeated questioning would tend to find it weary but I suggest there are other ways to look at what too many people have come to recognise as the torment of sustainability data capture and reporting.

According to a recent report from the ReScore Group the most common complaint reported by CSR managers is survey fatigue. Empirically this is widely supported with numerous articles, events, initiatives and programmes emerging to tackle the problem. However, let’s pause before we unravel nascent technologies, process and frameworks that have sprung up to gather and analyse data from organisational supply chains. I would argue that it is better to ask whether survey fatigue is actually a necessary corollary of data capture and that we should, in the short term at least, view it as part of a long term investment in building capacity for sustainability reporting practices.

The number of metrics being captured by organisations is large and diverse – some 2,555 having been recorded by Prof. Cory Searcy at Ryerson University in Toronto for CR reporting. Understanding what is driving the creation of large and diverse metric sets is vital to framing what companies like Ecodesk are engaging suppliers to do on behalf of clients’. Sectoral, operational, material and strategic factors all influence the ubiquitous ‘survey’ or SAQ (Self-Assessment Questionnaire). Supplier organisations typically react with despair when it appears that the same question is, or is perceived to be, repeated to them. However, it is not the repetition of questions that presents the problem – it is the demand for new answers and gathering of additional datasets that really epitomises survey fatigue. So, how is the provision of many different answers as a result of multiple surveys actually a benefit and should we be embracing it?

As a value chain data provider we – as Ecodesk – are bound to act in the best interests of our clients to gather source data (as they too are bound to improve sustainable performance through the value chain) and that essentially means ‘answers’. Or, to put it another way, the problem is not actually the number or type of questions – rather it’s the range of possible answers. Finding ways to create efficiencies through consolidated answers is one thing but we should recognise that efficiencies actually manifest as a result of survey fatigue – you don’t look for new data if existing data provides the right answers. The process of filtering, adjusting and refining datasets produce marginal savings which over time scale-up and allow learnings to transfer across organisational boundaries. The trick then I would argue is not to avoid survey fatigue but to ensure that the efficiencies that are derived from it are delivering long-term value and that the learnings between stakeholders are openly shared.

Perhaps unwittingly, what is occurring now is that the many groups of suppliers are silently collaborating on a project that will shape the future of sustainability reporting. Because sustainability is infinitely more complex than say, financial reporting, the true value of the data can be recognised and defined through responses. It therefore makes a great deal of sense for those of us who are responsible for providing the technology and processes for collecting supply chain data to look at ways of mapping responses through a long-term lens. In doing so we will support the drive towards consolidation but in a constructive and collegiate fashion. Of course the temptation is to yield under commercial pressures and either limit the amount of surveys or content but this would not serve the ultimate purpose of what we, and many others, are trying to achieve. If we are to build trust, maintain integrity and convince a broad range of stakeholders of the merits of this information then we all must endure some discomfort during these early times.

Written by Ecodesk’s COO, Damien Smith

August 18th, 2016

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