May 8, 2011

Due diligence on content as well as technology

On March 29, 2007 the biofuels industry witnessed an audacious transformation - Broin Companies President Jeff Broin announced the name change of his company to "Poet, LLC." There must be an important reason why a company the size and scale of the world's largest producer of corn ethanol decides to recast their corporate identity.

Isn't "a rose by any other name still a rose"? Not at all. Corporate identities impact all stakeholders' perception of the enterprise. That includes management, investors, policymakers, community leaders, and company employees. As the Broin Companies, this Midwestern enterprise appeared to all to be a family dominated business of self-interest and bottomline conservatism. As POET, the enterprise becomes a creative entity that is “writing the next chapter in the story of bio-refining.”

“We wanted a name that would represent, rather than describe, who we are and what we do,” the 41-year-old Broin told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. “Just as a poet takes everyday words and turns them into something valuable and beautiful, our team takes information that comes from common sense to leave things better than before.”

A company that is more than the sum of its parts? A company that seeks lasting relevance rather than just bottomline results? Maybe this is just public relations manipulation masking viler interests. Or maybe this is a sophisticated, innovative company that pursues deeper truths and accepts its responsibility to communicate them to the people whose futures are impacted. Ultimately, they saw themselves as developers of content important to the biofuels industry - not just builders of biorefineries.

I use this example to suggest that companies in emerging technologies need to think beyond what they are capable of doing and more to what ends society seeks and the means to get there. Developers who attempt to convince stakeholders of the wisdom of their plans, without first reaching out to the communities and insuring buy-in to the perceived need, are finding harsh and dogged resistance. The justification for resistance takes various forms - social injustice, environmental harm, toxic emissions, etc. - but they mask the true objections:
  • Many stakeholders don't trust corporations and their own community leaders to make decisions based on the good of the community.
  • Change is messy and could result in a drop in property values. Why should this community be the fall guys?
I recently made a presentation titled "Building your business' C.R.E.D. using social media" at the BBI International Biomass Conference and Expo in St. Louis (5/5/11). Two of the points that I made were that the bioenergy industry needs to focus on building its credibility and relevance for efforts to increase sustainability. Stated another way - companies need to jealously guard against the twin accusations of misrepresentation (the opposite of credibility) and self-interest (the opposite of relevance).

It may seem obvious to us that we are working on the side of the angels but not all truths are self-evident - particularly in the tempestuous environment of politics and mass media (which have their own self-interests). Stakeholders need to be convinced and assured not only of our the due diligence of our technology but also our intentions. For this reason we need to forge with society a transparent compact, in word and deed, based on the aim of achieving clean, sustainable solutions for renewable energy.

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