Action Research Cycle 5 – Customer Insights

Customer Insights, Actions Taken and Data Gathered

In Business, the concept of metrics, a solid way to plan, do, check and act and a comprehensive evaluation system are necessary to ensure long term continuous improvement.

This system will be designed with analytics embedded into it and will need to measure who takes the course, how they are scoring, if learning is taking place and how it is being applied. Finally the entire system will be built to drive continuous improvement.

Learning Cycle v1

The last action research cycle I conducted was to pull all this information together and begin a deep conversation and dialogue with the community on key items deemed important by the SB CEO.

The following is the results of a scoping study on E-Learning modules that could be offered by Sustainable Brands. More than 30 interviews were conducted at Sustainable Brands in June 2016 in San Diego. The study explores company responses to five questions:

  1. How do members of your company currently learn about sustainability? And who do they trust as sources to learn from?
  2. What works and does not work with your employee/supply chain population?
  3. What do people want in a learning program?
  4. What does success look like?
  5. What are acceptable price-points for training? And who at your company is the buyer?

8.1 Synopsis

Thirty-five company representatives were interviewed. 97% enthusiastically wanted access to a learning program provided by a reputable third-party and 100% were excited by the possibility of an E-Learning platform created by Sustainable Brands. 21% of companies wanted to pay per course while 14% of companies were interested in a tiered cost structure added to membership based on the size of the company or number of people taking the courses. 45% want to see this included or as an add-on to Sustainable Brand’s memberships.

At a minimum, companies would like an E-Learning platform to include lessons from industry people who have been there, case studies on how they overcame challenges, and access to tools, technical information, and raw or source data.

Currently, companies learn about sustainability via in-house courses, external courses, attendance at conferences and ad-hoc training. For approval to purchase an E-Learning course, 27% recommended Human Resources and 27% said the initial buyer would be the Sustainability Department. Conversations clearly indicated that the buyer of the course (customer) is not necessarily the student (client). Because so many of the companies have compliance-only courses they are required to take, Legal was frequently the buyer as well.

Success came in a few forms. The boldest was that they would gauge success by their employees caring and desirous to see their Company does more. Most companies are interested in their employees becoming able and comfortable having a sustainability dialogue with customers. This was by far the most significant motivator among the company reps interviewed.

8.2 Recommendations

Sustainable Brands is perfectly positioned to offer E-Learning courses in sustainability. It was voted the top brand influence on sustainability, giving it an excellent platform to provide E-Learning offerings and curriculum that companies would trust and would pay for.

Companies often commented that they were still looking for trusted sources to provide information and training. They are concerned about both credibility and industry experience.

A successful course would provide information and perspectives from research organizations, NGOs, and respected people in the industry with specific expertise. The course would consist of short segments, opportunities to collaborate, and games.

8.3 Findings

Sustainable Brands Manifesto states, “we believe that brands are in a unique position to influence the global economic system in ways that accelerate the vision of a diverse, healthy, and safe future.”

An E-Learning platform under Sustainable Brands is a powerful way to accelerate achieving its commitment to “enabling brand success through leadership in innovation for sustainability.” It has been stated that one of Sustainable Brands’ functions is to enable the enablers. There is simply no better way than to equip them with the proper tools to transform their organizational ethos towards a more sustainable foundation with the learning tools to support them well into the future.

An E-Learning course by Sustainable Brands is an opportunity to dig deeper into and simultaneously expand its mission in a way that not only helps its members and the community, but also Sustainable Brands. This is similar to what REI found when it returned to its roots of “playing outside” and closed its stores on Black Friday – telling potential customers to “opt-outside” and be with their families. In taking action founded in its deepest values, REI – inadvertently – got press coverage equal to being on the front of the New York Times every day for eight years.

Companies were very interested in an E-Learning course provided by Sustainable Brands. Johnson & Johnson “loves the idea of a premier learning platform at Sustainable Brands University” and Aveda commented: “a robust E-Learning system would absolutely increase the value of what Sustainable Brands brings us”. Intuit, stated that whatever we create needs the clear context of ‘why am I learning this’.” FedEx thought it would be “very helpful for its staff and inform their capacity for critical thinking” and Iron Mountain unequivocally said, “we should have this. We need it – it would be great!” FedEx also thought “third-party verification from the academic community would give it validation.”

  1. How do members of your company currently learn about sustainability? And whom do they trust?

Currently, members of companies learn about sustainability from a range of trusted sources and platforms.

Companies said that current E-Learning offerings were not very engaging and left a lot of room for improvement. Courses were difficult to navigate and the content is often overwhelming. Target and Intel both commented that there is a lot of information out there and it is difficult to know how and where to look for the most useful and actionable information. Intel called this “infobesity.”

Companies feel the courses are not dynamic enough and don’t give enough insights into customer concerns and activities. One comment that was offered repeatedly is that very few people have had a sustainability course. For example, 3M said no more than 12% of employees use the courses and Johnson & Johnson said of 120,000 employees maybe 20 have had a sustainability course.

Companies were insistent that the course works in their culture. For example, BASF’s current employee engagement platform isn’t working for them because it doesn’t help them understand their customer’s concerns and is not dynamic enough. Kohler mentioned that they prioritize having a conversation about sustainability with their B2B customers over those with the end-users of their products.

The information is offered by different divisions of the company (most frequently Compliance, Legal, and HR) and it is often connected to legal compliance (i.e., sexual harassment) and the company code of ethics.

Some companies, such as General Motors, Nestle, Carlson Hotels, Cisco, UPS, Yahoo! and Waste Management have in-house courses. Others have customized external courses. Cisco cannot support internal E-Learning product development and would love to see a high-quality offering from Sustainable Brands.

In terms of course content, Yahoo! said of all its E-Learning resources, the most successful is a virtual reality video of former President Bill Clinton in Africa.

In addition to courses, information on sustainability is provided through presentations, a green guide, emails, webinars, and face-to-face conversations.

Who companies learn from was one of the key discussion topics. Companies currently trust a variety of sources. One interesting finding is that there were three groups that companies either absolutely trusted or didn’t trust at all: academics, companies, and NGOs.

Those, like 3M, who were skeptical of NGOs said, “Advocacy groups must prove they are about pure science and not biased on positions.” Mattel treats NGOs “with hesitation due to inherent bias” and finds that “companies are not really impartial, either.” Those skeptical of academics feel that “they have no practical or relevant industry experience.”

Those who trusted NGOs, like Aveda, trusted “NGOs more than companies” and those, like Target, who trust academics “for frameworks and topical understanding.” Those who trust companies like “others who have been through it.”

Companies trusted:

Technical experts; Industry experts;
Industry groups; Data;
Companies who have experience; Relevant stakeholders;
Experts with stellar reputations; Consumer product groups;
In-house sustainability and CSR teams; and The environmental community.
Table 9: Companies Trusted NGOs

(Source: )

Organizations that some of them specifically called out as trusted:

World Wildlife Foundation; Nature Conservancy; Conservation International;
Field-to-Market; Sustainable Packaging Coalition; Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council;
Hartman Research; World Business Council for Sustainable Development; World Resources Institute;
Rocky Mountain Institute; Water Environment Federation Business for Social Responsibility; and
Table 10: Companies Called out as trusted NGOs

(Source: Created By Author)

GAP Inc. relies on a stakeholder engagement team made up of 100 NGOs. Kashi also has a complex circle of trusted informants. They take seriously the concerns of their consumers, customers, and suppliers for having “street cred” and then turn to trusted experts to learn options to best address their concerns. For example, they asked their consumers what percentage of their food they thought was organic. Consumers replied anywhere from 3-30%. In reality, only 1% of food is organic – so Kashi then turned to their experts in order to find ways to increase the percentage of certified organic ingredients and to develop a certification for “certified transitional” to incentivize farmers to transition to organic modes of production.

  1. What works and doesn’t work with your employee/supply chain population?

Companies find current systems to be taxing to use. Comments included: “The Sustainable Brands Library is very difficult to work with. I never have time to go through it, it is simply too overwhelming. I cannot find relevant items.”“I would rather buy a service that would assist us in finding what I need versus information that has to be weeded through. Navigation is critical.”

They do not like when they are presented with raw data only, and would prefer synthesized reports with access to the raw data. 77% of companies interviewed wanted distilled, interpreted data. They prefer it to be connected to a story and easily digestible. Intuit notes, “The attention span is very short.”

17% of companies wanted both summarized and raw data, while one company only wanted raw data and anther wanted a narrative with easy access to the raw data.

Some companies have employees that are not trained in business management and have many employees that are hourly workers at minimum wage. These companies, like Caesars, said the employees need a reason to take the course, and many may relate to an element of “shock” in an E-Learning course – to shake them into understanding the importance of sustainability.

Companies prefer to hear stories about successes, particularly in the face of adversity or antagonistic stakeholders. All of the companies liked learning through stories and case studies – to see what the challenges were, how they were overcome, and to have a story to tell about them. They want the information to be in storytelling or narrative form, relatable to the challenges they are facing. Overall, this makes the information more accessible to their employee bases.

We all remember stories and characters in stories – most people don’t remember facts, data, or figures. Nestle Purina shared a story about their work with The Nature Conservancy. Nestle sources its corn from the Wybash River Watershed region. TNC found that where the Wybash flows into the Mississippi River, the water was 1-11% nitrogen and nutrients as a result of agricultural runoff. Nestle is now working with TNC and installing a 150-acre wetlands and woodlands preserve to act as a natural filtration system for the water. These types of constructive, collaborative efforts exemplify the success stories that inspire more companies to do the good work.

Communicating with people about sustainability issues in the form of success stories are the things they remember, hold in their hearts, and share with others. Presenting “data” as narrative events (e.g.: showing the abundance from soil, the change in colors, critters, and what grows instead of statistics on carbon dioxide sequestration) engages people and they feel more connected to the results and want to be a part of it.

  1. What do people want in a learning program?

Companies wanted learning modules in a software program and an easy-to-navigate library. It is very important to them that the content is relevant to them doing their jobs.

Companies want material presented in a way that is new and engaging. When people are inspired and engaged, they will change their behavior. A strong preference was made to organize the information into career paths or along traditional functional lines within the corporate sector. The strongest preferences were made for marketing/branding, sourcing/supply chain and product development.

They prefer short pieces – written or video and enjoy presentations that are interactive. One interviewee even requested 10, 20, 30 and one-hour pieces be made available.

Many mentioned that they enjoy when information is gamified and they were very excited about virtual reality. For example, Carlson Rezidor Hotels “would love to see the use of virtual reality to make courses more engaging and powerful.” Imagine the impact of taking a virtual trip to the rainforest not only to see current environmental impacts but the improvement to the biodiversity and fauna from corporations adopting different practices. Games could allow a player to select an animal that lives in a region that is challenged. The course of the game would show how different corporate practices in the region regenerate the land, develops biodiversity, sequesters carbon dioxide, etc. Over the course of the game, the animal character would gain strength, vibrancy, and an abundant home. This identifies the game player with the (initially weary) animal on an adventure through the company’s sustainability activities in a region where, in the end, the animal is healthier and the player feels good about themselves and incorporating sustainability into their operations. Or, as General Motors suggested, a game where the player builds a car sustainably – from mining, to design, to manufacturing.

Companies want courses that include:

Lessons from industry people who have been there Case studies
Creative ways to have strategic discussions How sustainability connects to their brand
Technical rigor and sources How to work with customer-facing employees
Trends Customization
Examples of how you (customer) are affected and why it is important Deepening technical skills base
Table 11: Companies Want Courses That Include

(Source: )

A course format should include:

  1. Access to presentations;
  2. Short segments;
  3. Access to training;
  4. Opportunities to collaborate;
  5. Interactive exercises;
  6. Virtual reality;

Target thought it important not only to do training – but also to bring people together into learning cohorts, so it is collaborative. They thought it would be interesting for people to work together over a period of time on a relevant project.

Intel may have said it best. They want engaging experiences to teach them “how we can use sustainability to create a more valuable brand. Hold my attention. Give me resources I can refer back to. Games and immersive experiences are great so we can become part of the story.”

I asked many of the companies what were the most important topics to prioritize. 57% of the companies surveyed said that climate/GHG reduction was their biggest priority. 29% said that water was their biggest priority and 14% said biodiversity.

40% said their second priority was biodiversity, and 20% each claimed climate, water, and waste removal. 75% said that water was their third priority. One company “wrote in” design in terms of recycling and raw materials and their relationship to deforestation.

All the companies face social, human rights and labor practice issues and are seeing increasing press in these areas. The Western Union was particularly interested in the focus being on social, as well as environmental, issues. Finally, relating learning to legal compliance in a fun and engaging way would go a long way towards actual learning and behavior change.

  1. What does success look like?

Companies defined success both internally and externally. They also have different priorities against which they would be measuring overall corporate performance.

Internally, 3M defined success as: “When employees care and complain more about what we are not doing and how we can do more.” Kimberly-Clark would see success when its employees were asking follow-up questions about what they could do. Kellogg said its employees would find a training successful when they can save money or feel pride about their engagement. Avery Dennison would feel success when it created “a culture of sustainability.”   McDonalds would see success on the day “when people from other departments come to meetings with their own internal [sustainability] pull.”

Externally, BASF, Avery Dennison; Novozymes, Carlson Hotels; and 3M locate success in their employees being comfortable having a sustainability dialogue with customers. Kellogg will identify success when it sees it “helps grow the brand or adopt a personal change in their lives.” FedEx views success as employees being able “to connect into sustainability as it relates to their day jobs.” For Carlson Hotels, they see success when “we get business because we are responsible.”

Metrics of Success
Adoption by employees The number of people who use the course View-through rate
Follow-up Feedback Achievements of company goals
Improvements in comparisons of employee knowledge and action Company goals for E-Learning courses include Introducing more people to sustainability and how to integrate it into their jobs
Getting improvements in actual metrics to compare Growing the brand Saving money
People have the tools to take action Proper environmental marketing Generating revenue
Table 12: Metrics of Success

(Source: )

  1. What are acceptable price-points for training? And who at your company is the buyer?

Although companies were unanimous in wanting an E-Learning course from Sustainable Brands, they had different ideas on how best to pay for the offering. 13 companies want to pay for an E-Learning course as part of the Sustainable Brands membership (45% of the companies who replied to this question). Other companies suggested that E-Learning be a subscription module; priced by the number of people attending the course; and an annual fee based on the size of the company. One suggested something akin to the USGBC model, one suggested to pay by the course, and one suggested to first run a pilot and then sell it to members.

The prices companies said they were willing to pay:

  1. $3,000-10,000 for unlimited access and a shared-cost model;
  2. $99-399 per course per person;
  3. Flexible price points;
  4. Less than the cost to send people to offsite or onsite classes;
  5. $1,000-5,000.

They recommend that the price is consistent with other E-Learning programs. Novozymes liked the idea of an E-Learning course because they don’t have time to train and proliferate sustainability knowledge and recommended that it be less expensive than sending people out for training.

Companies like Columbia Sportswear, who are not currently members of Sustainable Brands, were most supportive of a tiered pricing model.

Williams Sonoma would “want to make sure it could be available to as many employees as possible.” Iron Mountain said the course would be “worth its weight in gold when it proves real engagement and awareness.”

All the companies recognized this to be an important revenue stream for Sustainable Brands and that it should be made available to broad audiences around the world including the Academic community, consultancies, startups, and individuals.

Companies have different buyers for purchasing E-Learning platforms:

  1. 35% Human Resources
  2. 27% Sustainability
  3. 15% Legal
  4. 8% Marketing

Other companies said the buyer would be: Compliance & Ethics; Learning & Development; the team that makes the internal courses; and CSR.

Companies noted that, in the end, HR/legal would be responsible for E-Learning; initially, the purchase and internal champions of such a program would be sustainability. At some companies, such as Ford Motor Company, there are multiple stages to a purchase “Online HR is responsible for purchasing, but whatever we buy for our employees must also be vetted by Office of Government Compliance.”

Although different divisions were responsible for purchasing, companies were unanimous in wanting their employees in marketing to learn more about sustainability. Pure Strategies, a premier sustainability consultancy, was interested in sharing it with new staff and to train existing staff in new areas. Also mentioned were sourcing, product development, manufacturing, and customer intelligence. If the courses could be developed and designed with career paths in mind, these would be the highest priority professions. General Motors was enthusiastic for a range of employees to have access to the program because “a well-designed training program ensures no one leader is indispensable.”

8.4 Conclusion of Company Interviews

Sustainable Brands is perfectly positioned to offer E-Learning courses, function specific sustainability guidance, and certificates in sustainability. SB was voted the top brand influence on sustainability[1], it is trusted, and has brand recognition among companies. E-Learning would offer Brands value added content on their membership.

The companies interviewed were overwhelmingly interested in and willing-to-purchase an E-Learning program created by Sustainable Brands. Companies are still looking for trusted sources to provide information and training and are particularly concerned about both credibility and industry experience and SB has the network and reputation to provide this to them. Most preferred that E-Learning be included in the price of membership instead of other pricing structures and at the same time were fine with tiered pricing or increases in the price of membership to accommodate this.

They were interested not only in educating their employees with high degrees of technical accuracy regarding sustainability but also in training employees how to engage and interface with customers about sustainability. They wanted to be able to include sustainability as part of the brand experience for their customers.

Two companies, SCA and Kashi, mentioned an interest in a formal certification program – the balance was enthusiastic about the opportunity to offer high-quality, easy-to-navigate content taught by experts in the field to their employees. Companies wanted this program to be created and offered by a third-party it could trust, like Sustainable Brands.

8.5 Participants

3M ASICS Aveda
Avery Dennison BASF Brazil Olympics
Carlson Hotels Caesars Cisco
Columbia FedEx Ford
Gap General Motors Intel
Intuit Iron Mountain Johnson & Johnson
Kashi Kellogg Kimberly Clark
Kohler Mattel McDonalds
Nestle Purina Novozymes Pure Strategies
REI SCA Target
UPS Waste Management Western Union
Table 13: Participants

(Source: Created By Author)

[1] Onalytica;