Going Global to Tackle Digital Dilemmas
Wednesday, 6th May 2015 at 10:21 am
One telco giant’s local response to technology’s “unintended consequences” has spawned a blueprint for CSR strategy in Asian markets, where the sophistication of the Australian approach is missing and philanthropy still reigns supreme, writes Nadia Boyce in this month’s Executive Insight.
In Australia, Optus’ CSR program centres around four pillars: Community, Environment, People and Responsible Business Practice. The company says it considers the sort of outcomes it wants to drive and the areas where it believes it could contribute.
In the last 18 months, that has included an emphasis on how the company can engage the community segment in Australia, by bringing it Optus’ capabilities, technologies, and core business, particularly around digital inclusion and education.
That is according to Andrew Buay, the Vice President of Group Corporate Social Responsibility at SingTel, the parent company of Optus. In the role since 2013, Buay is charged with helping Optus achieve a higher impact through its CSR program, in particular, leveraging its technologies in vulnerable communities. Now based in Sydney, he has also previously worked in Singapore and the Philippines.
Speaking with Pro Bono Australia News, Buay shared exactly how he hopes to make Optus a high-impact player in the CSR space and why he is now transplanting aspects of his Australian work back into the company’s Asian markets.
Developing Digital Natives at Home
One of Optus’ key focus areas is youth, driven, Buay says, by a need to ensure future generations are digitally savvy and responsible.
“The reason why we’ve adopted this as a major focus is because… when you think of the telecoms industry, the services that we bring, it’s created a lot of benefits – whether it’s individual connectivity, or accessing information, or even for businesses. But in this space, we’re starting to see the unintended consequences of the industry, which is because of the availability of digital devices, social media and the internet,” Buay says.
“It’s not just in Australia, but even in the other markets in which we operate across the region – we are starting to see things like device addiction, cyber bullying, kids not knowing how to manage their personal privacy on the internet – these are emerging issues that we felt, as a company, we should play a part in solving those social issues.
“Hence why we’ve adopted the assets to support digital education, responsible use of devices, social media and the internet, because we believe that if kids get that right, they grow up as responsible digital citizens, which is really going to be the ecosystem that they operate in in future.”
Digital Thumbprint is an education program run by Optus that Buay says gives high school students an insight into the online world. By the end of last year, the program, which comprises a series of workshops that build students’ online etiquette and promote cyber wellness and safety, had engaged more than 40,000 students in Sydney and Melbourne.
Buay says feedback to date is encouraging: some 95 per cent of participants confirmed they learnt something new in the workshop that they could apply to their everyday lives, while over 97 per cent of teachers felt their knowledge of digital concepts increased as a direct result of the workshop.
“Youth in particular is an area we have identified, where we as a business feel we could make significant difference. Not only in terms of skills and capabilities, but we also have a philosophy with youth that if you get it right, their long term contribution to society, community and the economy, becomes quite significant in impact.
“Of course on the reverse, especially for segments such as vulnerable youth, if there’s nothing done in that area, it’s potentially a social burden. So vulnerable youth is a key area and our main focus as a business…we want to realise the potential of youth, especially leveraging digital technologies and education programs.
Buay notes that Optus is one of the founding members of the Australian Business Community Network, where large Australian companies came together to collaborate around the support of young students from vulnerable backgrounds – for coaching, mentoring, scholarships and programs.
“That’s one area, where last year, over 500 of our staff have been involved in mentoring students that come from families of asylum seekers, immigrants, refugees, even some with parents in detention,” Buay says.
“We’ve mentored them in many things from English, to their career, creating aspirations… we’ve got a program targeted at females coming from ethnic or cultural backgrounds where females don’t have a meaningful place in society and education.
“Mentoring is also something we’ve also used to up the level of staff engagement, especially skills-based mentoring.”
Bridging the Divide
Optus must also play a role addressing the needs of vulnerable communities by leveraging its technological capabilities, Buay says.
“We have a very close partnership with the Smith Family. We created a program called the Smith Family Student-to-Student Reading Program. We did it in a context of kids who have difficulty reading, and dont necessarily have the school or home environment [to improve].
“Using Optus mobile services, we pair students from those disadvantaged reading situations with other students, who could be coming from universities or tertiary education, to do regular mentoring using the mobile and telecoms services, which gives them the convenience and allows them to do it more frequently without the need for travel and meeting face-to-face.
“That’s another program that’s been quite successful and the Smith Family has done some research about its impact and the results.
“It’s another phenomenal example of the use of simple mobile and telecoms technologies to bridge the gap between those in need and those willing to provide some assistance.
I think most the programs, the way we look at it, have very good momentum. We have a lot of partnerships we have developed quite strategically, and it’s really about do we then scale -scale the scope and the impact, and als in scaling where there are opportunities to leverage the technologies.
The quest to make difference through technology has extended into the company's overseas markets, spurred by the Australian experience.
“We’re working with some of our regional associates, like in the Philippines where mobile and internet is becoming a lot more accessible and a lot more affordable, even in a developing economy,” Buay says.
“We are looking at how we can bring some of these insights, capabilities, content and partnerships into the region, really scaling that capability, not just geographically but also in terms of the depth of how we’re covering that particular social need.
“The focus on cyber wellness and online safety – given the insights and the work that has been done in Australia – we similarly have a team in Singapore and we’ve adopted the whole cyber wellness and online safety as very similarly a major focus at a SingTel group level.”
Buay says Australia is setting a fine example for many other nations in Asia-Pacific.
“I think there are areas which are [still] emerging, yet there are areas where Australia does better than other parts of Asia. Australian companies are increasingly taking on a broader perspective of CSR, it’s beyond just community and into environmental, supply, chain, talent development – a more holistic basis,” he says.
“Outside of say, Korea or Japan where there’s a bit more going on at a broader perspective, Australia in Asia-Pacific actually has some good things going for it that represent good – even best practice, in the region.”
“When you go out to Asia, for example, a lot more of the focus in CSR is on the community space, whereas I’ve seen a lot of Australian companies take a more strategic approach, towards even the community sector.
“In Asia it’s still much more about philanthropy – ‘what money do we get?’- and of course people do volunteering. But if you ask [companies] what’s the logic behind target segments, and what capabilities they bring, they haven't thought about it as much as I’ve seen in Australian companies.”
Buay sees a big future for CSR in Australia.
“Even just from a community angle – unlike, say, Singapore, where the Government invests a lot in the community development segment, in Australia I think there is a chance for that segment to be led very strongly by the private sector.”
Collaboration for Change
In recent years the Telco industry has distinguished itself through its collaborative approach. The Telco together foundation, for example, is a registered charity that brings together the telecommunications industry in support of disadvantaged communities in areas including indigenous communities, the homeless, mental health and refugees.
“Telco Together is one good example where there is a bit of common focus and common technology, especially given that with CSR, it’s something where you want to cover a segment of the community that is as wide as possible, and its not just isolated to your customer base,” Buay says.
“I think the way to look at it is, if companies – whether they’re in the Telco industry or any other – have a common focus on a social need, how do those different companies bring together their complementary capabilities?
“With the Australian Business Community Network, you have companies coming from different industries and sectors who have a common [social] focus but are bringing together very different skills and capabilities. We’ve seen the power of that collaboration, with lots of social impact.”
Buay says involvement in other local networks, such as membership of the LBG community investment benchmarking framework, has also proven valuable in helping companies to leverage their capabilities.
“It’s really [around] how companies undertake a very different philosophy and attitude towards community and CSR. We have found that where a company can understand, what logic, what capabilities, what core skills they can bring to bear for a particular target segment, they actually do get very engaged and very informed,”he says.
“[LBG] gives you a more relative framework, [when you] look at community investment. When you look at the value of things like skills, capabilities and technology in community investment, even in-kind, it can open the organisation’s mind and perspective to the holism of how we can approach community support.
“In the traditional model, if you just look at the money put aside by the company, ironically that narrow definition causes companies to just look at it purely as a financial contribution…It’s about looking at CSR a lot more strategically, rather than just from that philanthropic angle.”
Buay says he also see other trends emerging like Shared Value, signalling a move away from traditional philanthropic models.
“[Shared Value] is moving to the next level. We hear companies talking about engaging the community strategically. Even looking at companies internally, there would be a dialogue around whether there is some sort of the value that the company gets.
“It’s not a dirty word to talk about what the company gets in terms of benefits. We do in terms of the higher level of staff engagement we get, the ability to attract millennials…internally, for example, we even use CSR for leadership and talent development.
“There’s nothing wrong with companies looking at how they benefit in different ways, as long as it’s done with the right intent and that the community benefits from that.”