Pushing Technology for Inclusion
Wednesday, 8th October 2014 at 10:44 am
Technology and its role in modern life, environmental leadership and employee engagement are proving the hallmarks of a fledgling CSR program by telco giant Telstra. The man spearheading the program, Tim O’Leary speaks to Nadia Boyce in this week’s Executive Insight.
Technology and its role in modern life, environmental leadership and employee engagement are proving the hallmarks of the fledgling CSR program at Australian telecommunications icon Telstra.
Telstra’s corporate social responsibility program leverages its own professional expertise to address one of modern society’s emerging problems.
Telstra has embedded a social equity lens into its company purpose, driving advocacy for safe and widespread access to new technologies.
The telecommunications giant is in a unique position, unmatched in its sector in terms of scale, reach and political gravity.
Since 2011, the program has been spearheaded by Tim O’Leary, whose responsibilities include community and reputational initiatives, corporate responsibility, environment strategy and employee sustainability.
Pro Bono Australia News journalist Nadia Boyce spoke with O’Leary about the ups and downs of Telstra’s CSR program and the future potential for the telecommunications industry to create change.
Technology for Progress
According to Tim O’Leary, a key priority for Telstra is the use of its own expertise to address an issue that is increasingly pressing in modern society – the digital world – from security and safety, through to access and inclusion.
“Perhaps for the first time in human history, there’s now a really direct link between access to the internet and human flourishing,” he says. “That unlocks incredible opportunities for people, particularly people in vulnerable communities, whether it’s people with disabilities, people in remote circumstances…I think it’s incredible, the opportunities.”
“I think the nature of our industry’s a strength. I think there are few industries comparable to telecommunications with the same capacity to impact social and environmental outcomes.
The drive to democratise technology is driven via the company’s official purpose.
“One the the phrases we use internally is ‘tech for good.’ It’s about using technology for social innovation…our purpose as an organisation is to create a brilliant connected future for everyone” O’Leary says.
“It’s somewhat unusual to have almost a social equity lens built into a corporate’s organisational purpose. But we see Telstra having a unique organisational capability to create a connected future for Australians.
“We want people to be able to enjoy the benefits of new communications technologies, regardless of age, income, location, ability. our work there is really designed to make products more accessible, enhance digital literacy, and of course cyber safety.
“Our work, which we tend to label under the heading of “Everyone Connected”, is really helping our people connect and interact safely in the digital world. This is one of those areas where we’re able to bring great expertise but also scale and impact.
O’Leary speaks of three aspects of the program:
A low-income program which he says last year delivered in the order of $145 million worth of benefits – benefits to just under 1,000,000 pensioners.
143,000 people receiving digital literacy training, and the distribution of over 65,000 cyber safety kits.
The equipping of all of Australia’s 1500 public libraries to be community digital hubs – where people are safe, smart and responsible.
The underlying link between technology, social innovation and vulnerable communities is a concept that now also extends to the Telstra Foundation – an understanding, he says, which shows the Foundation’s maturity.
Leveraging Strengths, Building on Weaknesses
There can be little doubt Telstra is in an unparalleled position – one it can build on with its CSR program.
“I think there’s something unique about Telstra’s organisational DNA,” O’Leary says.
“We have 1.2 million shareholders, we have over 30,00 employees, we have millions and millions of customers. Our people and our network spans all of Australia, from the very remote to our cities.
“I think the other simple truth is that we’ve been around a long time. I think within the organisation there’s a deep sense of responsibility to the community…the commitment by senior management to this work, and it being genuinely embedded into the heart of organisation, I think thats a strength."
O’Leary speaks of a future vision – of a more “mature” approach. This approach, he says, will be more rigorously focused on materiality.
“A more structured, thoughtful process around materiality is vital,” he says. “There’s a lot of noise, a lot of competing priorities, with no shortage of issues to focus on. Hence that materiality process can really bring strategic focus, to be able to look at the wider megatrends, make sense of those, and be able to translate that into a clear process of strategic prioritisation. That’s an area where we have a lot of ambition.
Improved communications is also set to be a priority.
“The other area I think we can continue to improve is how we tell our story, how we communicate our work. We do a number of things in this area but I think as a relatively new sustainability function which is now fully integrated, our focus has been on building substance as opposed to the message. But I think message and substance have to be in balance.
The company has the foundations set, with a regular email newsletter exclusively around sustainability already a feature.
“I think its important to build that distinctive voice – that reflect the priorities at Telstra. As well as being open to, and engaging in, an ongoing dialogue with our stakeholders. The whole process of strategic sustainability is an iterative process with our stakeholders and we need to take opportunity to be involved in those key conversations.
“I think we’ve invested in our reporting to make that more compelling as a communications vehicle.”
O’Leary is reflective, assessing trends in the CSR space that may shape the evolution of Telstra’s program.
“[Shared Value] has been quite a helpful conversation. I think it’s important that people look the evolution of the Shared Value concept.”
According to O’Leary, the articles of [Michael Porter and Mark Kramer] about corporate philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and shared value should be considered together.
“I think that most sustainability functions will have elements of the portfolio, which is touched in each of the areas, and I think each of the areas has a legitimate place and can bring good value to stakeholders. I see more more of a portfolio approach along a continuum, rather than trying to fit everything under the concept of shared value,” he says.
He believes the labelling and categorising of sustainability functions is still evolving.
“By my observation no two sustainability functions will be exactly the same. Different organisations bring different elements of the function together – or not together.
“This language of value, the way in which we create different types of value for the organisation, and different types of value for customers and other stakeholders, I think that’s quite important,” he says.
“The language..the strategic narrative around philanthropy, corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship is continuing to evolve, and in a sense orthodoxy is not settled.
“But, I think the idea of shared value is an important contribution.”
O’Leary is emphatic explaining how he believes debate around business and CSR should be framed.
“Where I think we should encourage the discussion is not so much around pure CSR, pure sustainability, but the intersection of the social and the environmental with business, rather than a closed conversation around the sustainability profession.
“I think the really interesting conversations are around intersections.
“Perception of the social and the environmental, intersected with the commercial and the economic, with the direction of society – and the nation.”