The Professionalization of Stakeholder Engagement Practices

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I’ve always enjoyed listening to people talk about the challenges they’re facing and trying to help them find solutions. About a year ago in discussions with prospective clients I started hearing a new term: professionalization.

While engaging with our users over the past 6 to 10 months I’ve heard the term repeatedly – it’s a subject that has clearly generated a lot of interest. I’d like to take a look at the topic and explain what it means for stakeholder engagement professionals.

What is Professionalization?

Lexico.com defines professionalization as:   

The action or process of giving an occupation, activity, or group professional qualities, typically by increasing training or raising required qualifications.  

There’s even an article about professionalization on Wikipedia  

The concept of professionalization is not really a new idea; its roots can be traced back to the creation of trade guilds during the Middle Ages. At its essence, professionalization involves establishing occupational standards (norms, values, practices, and codes of conduct) that those practicing a profession agree to follow. It may also include the development of professional associations to determine best practices, oversee conduct, and define credentials to distinguish experts from amateurs.  

Factors Driving the Professionalization of Stakeholder Engagement Practices

Stakeholder engagement professionals work in many different types of businesses worldwide. No matter which industry they find themselves in, their ultimate goal is the same: to work with affected people to find common ground and come up with solutions everyone can live with.

These people understand – and want to recognize – the importance of the role they play. While others may perceive their jobs as mostly a matter of smiling and shaking hands, the truth of the matter is that their work requires specific knowledge and expertise. Professionalization is an important step as the field and its practices evolve.

Let’s examine some of the challenges that stakeholder engagement teams face, and how the professionalization of the occupation could help them improve outcomes.

1. Lack of Trust from Stakeholders

Government workers as well as public affairs and indigenous relations teams often face a lack of trust from the people they engage with. While public servants are often genuinely motivated to help people, they deal constantly with conflicting issues and visions from different groups of people. The nature of their work means that they can’t usually please everyone; some stakeholders simply won’t be able to get what they want, and their dissatisfaction may lead them to distrust project representatives, particularly those in public-facing roles.

Of course, lack of trust isn’t limited to any one industry – this situation is also common with mining projects, pipelines, and wind farms, just to name a few. The precise interventions that are necessary in these circumstances require the right tools. Better tools can help an organization be more proactive, maintain better relations with stakeholders, and reduce the impact on their project.

2. Trouble Seeing the Big Picture

Another challenge when it comes to stakeholder engagement is sharing information. Several different people from different parts of an organization may be contacting the same stakeholders about different issues without even realizing it, let alone taking it into account. Repeated, uninformed contacts can make people feel frustrated – even disrespected – and quickly lead to stakeholder fatigue. When one team doesn’t know what other parts of their organization are doing, it looks unprofessional, and no one wants to give their stakeholders that impression. The right tools and policies can help centralize data and coordinate efforts across teams, which improves efficiency and elicits more confidence from stakeholders.

3. Difficulty Bringing New People on Board

At times, you may need to bring new people on board. This can be anyone from new staff members to consultants, inspectors, contractors, and more, depending on the project. In many situations, it can be quite difficult to bring new people up to speed so they can get to work. Professionalization will standardize processes and provide appropriate tools. Best practices, like centralizing data in a safe and accessible location, will make onboarding more efficient. 

4. No Standardized Practices

Another common problem with the lack of standard practices is that each person on a team can end up doing things their own way, using their own tools and methods. There is no standard across the board, which results in mixed messaging and a lack of centralized data. It’s also generally very inefficient for teams to work this way; sharing information is complicated, and if someone is out of the office, colleagues may not be able to access or understand their records. By professionalizing processes and methods, teams will be able to share information efficiently, focus on relevant topics by region, and ensure that they haven’t overlooked or forgotten about anyone. Consistent messaging is important to building a good reputation and helps build trust with stakeholders.

5. Regulatory Compliance

Professionalization can help organizations manage regulatory compliance. It’s crucial to keep thorough records of stakeholder interactionsCircumstances sometimes require that an organization be able to prove that stakeholders were properly informed months or years after the fact. Without proper procedures and documentation an organization can find itself facing fines or litigation because they have no way of proving what was said and done on their behalf. By adopting professional best practices this can be resolved by simply generating a report rather than scrambling to try to locate and compile the necessary information in a timely manner. 

How Can a Stakeholder Management Tool Help?

Professionalization of a field takes time; people will need to work together to identify and implement occupational standards that work across a variety of business sectors and in different regions. In the meantime, teams can start making significant progress on their own by standardizing their own internal processes and adopting fit-for-purpose tools. 

Spreadsheets and notebooks are no longer a viable solution for stakeholder data management.  Organizations will need to adopt modern digital tools, but these will need to be industry appropriate. The role of stakeholder engagement teams is to work with people and build relationships; they are not necessarily high-tech workers. The right tools must be user-friendly and support the work teams are doing without feeling like a burden. Tools will need to be useful, provide value, and generate meaningful reports.  

Let’s look at some of the ways stakeholder management software can help teams manage challenges more effectively.  

1. Create Corporate Memory

Centralizing all of your data in one convenient, accessible location is a crucial step toward mature data management practices. Storing all important information in one place lets you easily bring people up to speed, whether it’s an external contractor or new employee. Proper documentation of interactions serves as a lasting corporate memory, so knowledge is not lost when an employee leaves the organization. We’ve all heard stories of someone accepting a new position only to find that the person who previously held the role left no record of what had gone before. Many employees can’t take holidays without their work phone by their side because no one else in their organization knows what they knowWell-documented historical data is a huge asset for organizations as well as a quality-of-life issue for workers. Effectively managing corporate memory also goes a long way in building trust with your stakeholders and improving your professional reputation. 

2. Share Information Easily

The proper tools can help us share information internally in order to collaborate better. Doing your homework before you meet with stakeholders shows that you care about them as people. In turn, your organization looks better as a result of modernization and professionalization. By coordinating your efforts, you earn trust with your stakeholders and often increase their willingness to engage.  

Centralizing data helps you work more efficiently and make informed decisions. Documenting information such as a stakeholder’s preferred communication method can help teams personalize their efforts and be sure they’re using the right channels to maximize outcomes. Sharing calendars, tasks and reminders can help ensure that nothing slips through the cracks by ensuring that everyone can see the big picture.  

3. Optimize travel ​

When you are scheduling travel, review your data to identify key influencers and issues in the region. Use heat maps to find out who you should engage with and quickly assess what issues are important to them. These simple preparations help you improve relationships with your stakeholders and achieve better outcomes.

A mobile app will allow you to consult up-to-the-moment stakeholder data before meetings and document your interactions as you go, while the information is fresh in your memory. If you recognize a need for support while travelling in a remote location, you can enter your notes in the system and create a task for a colleague at the office to follow up on the spot. Professional, fit-for-purpose tools give you a complete picture of your position at all times and provide the flexibility to respond quickly and proactively, even when you’re on the road.

4. Improve Data Quality

Even the best tool is only as good as you make it; a tool’s usefulness depends on the quality of your data. Fit-for-purpose tools include performance and quality control reports to help you manage this. By monitoring your data quality to identify potential areas for improvement, you can proactively spot issues – like holes in your data that can lead to faulty or incomplete reports – before they become a problem. You may need to refine your workflow or offer additional training to make sure that your team is using your system the right way. Small, consistent adjustments help to make sure that everyone is on the same page and procedures are standardized to help you make the most of your efforts.

Professionals are More Than Their Tools

A fit-for-purpose tool is a great start when it comes to professionalizing your practices, but tools alone are not enough. Modernization of the role is about the role, not just the tool. Someone within the organization needs to manage the change, tell the team why, when, and how to use the tool, and make sure that policy is adjusted accordingly. 

The right tool should be configured to your specific needs and should support your efforts, not dictate your policies. Teams should help figure out how to set up the new tool to be sure it meets their needs. While some people may be reluctant to embrace change or adopt new tools, participating in the process can help improve acceptance. Tools that are designed with users in mind (like the Borealis Outlook Add-in and Mobile App) can help put people at ease, since their familiarity with the tools makes it an easy change.  

Engagement teams will need to standardize their practices and reassess as they continue to evolve. If your previous approach no longer works because you have too many stakeholders, try new strategies. Find more effective ways to engage and establish an appropriate cadence for each stakeholder group.  

Conclusion

The professionalization of an industry is no small feat, but the potential benefits are clear. By taking steps now to assess and modernize your processes and adopt fit-for-purpose tools, you can dramatically improve stakeholder relationships, productivity, and outcomes. 

Find out more about how you can take your stakeholder engagement practices to the next level.

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