17D thinking for responsible business: New vision for a new age

At Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business we believe the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an aspirational, hope-filled vision.

In 2015 world leaders agreed on 17 SDGs that represent the achievement of the UN’s ambitious strategy to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure all enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. However, achieving the SDGs will require new relationships between governments, businesses, civil society and individual citizens.

The SDGs are game-changers in terms of what it means to be a responsible business. They redefine the role of business in creating a more sustainable world. SDGs provide a vision that can mobilise business resources to secure their, and our, best possible future; a future where responsible businesses flourish, protecting the resources upon which they depend, creating value while sustaining  our planet.

This hopeful vision stands in stark contrast to our unsustainable world, plagued with risks and uncertainties, growing social injustice and  ecological devastation.

SDGs help define what doing business responsibly means, translating a fuzzy concept into 17 strategic goals and priorities, improve decision-making, measure progress and map out a more responsible future. The SDGs redefine success for all organisations, including businesses, and reset our moral compass  on what is valued, valuable and socially acceptable.

Supporting business in this transformation through research, engagement and education is the core objective of the Centre for Responsible Business, formed from the shared values of Lloyd Banking Group and the University  of Birmingham.

Creating a 17D responsible  business toolkit

In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling notes that if you give a child a hammer, the whole world becomes a nail. Similarly if businesses only measure their impact in terms of short-term profitability, the world is reduced to a set of profit possibilities.

As the SDGs become embedded within international trade agreements, financial markets, taxation systems, procurement and consumer preferences, what is considered valuable and valued will change. Demonstrating business contributions to SDGs will create competitive advantage, just as preventing the attainment of SDGs will become less valued and subject to growing distrust and unacceptability.

Responsible business leaders now need to think differently about what they do and how they do it.

The SDGs create a need for multidimensional thinking, thinking that helps make sense of business with reference to all 17 SDGs. This 17D thinking involves considering the impact of business decisions on each SDG, how much they depend on SDGs being met, as well as identifying cumulative benefits across all SDGs. 17D thinking will expose the risks of acting irresponsibly and create new measures of value.

For example, a change in procurement practices that reduces poverty in your supply chain is likely to have a positive impact on hunger, health, decent work, education and inequalities. If the same action is sustained over a period of time, it may have a positive impact on sustainable communities, life on land, infrastructure and innovation. This change also results in improved performance against the responsible production and consumption goal.

The value of 17D thinking becomes clearer with reference to an example, such as our three-step 17D SWOT analysis.

Step 1

Take each SDG and consider whether it is a strength, weakness, opportunity or threat. This will provide an initial 17D picture of your business. This analysis can be applied to different objects, for example business unit, department, product or service. In your analysis you should include supply chains, business operations, consumption of goods or services sold and  stakeholder engagements.

Step 2

Undertake a separate SWOT analysis for each SDG. This can be integrated with our 17D Responsible Business Challenge Audit, which involves responding to a series of prompts for each SDG. For example, list three things that contribute positively or may impact negatively. Are we better or worse than our competitors? How do we measure performance? Ideally what would we like to achieve? How could we make a small positive change?

Step 3

Revisit the initial SWOT analysis. Create a Responsible Business Challenge Map, listing key actions to address SWOTs, highlighting those with a significant impact on more than one SDG and determining the relative priority of each SDG.

SDGs provide a vision that can mobilise business resources to secure their best possible future. Our research is creating a portfolio of 17D tools that enable responsible business transformation

Never underestimate the cumulative impact of incremental change

Responsible business is an ongoing process shaped by changing business risks and opportunities. 17D tools identify how each business is becoming responsible, how much further they can go, recognising incremental changes against all SDGs while taking into account their alignment with strategic priorities.

A transparent approach should be adopted to reward any positive contribution, enabling businesses to learn what works and build capacity for change. In particular, 17D thinking allows businesses to identify initiatives with the potential to build over time and across the 17 dimensions; initiatives that create value to the business, protect the resources upon which business success depends and contribute positively to as many SDGs as possible.

Our research is creating a portfolio of 17D tools that enable responsible business transformation. The Centre for Responsible Business has supported Business in the Community to develop their Responsible Business Tracker. This comprehensive tool evaluates the responsibility of a business on multiple dimensions. It tracks changes in  strategy, processes, products and impacts, provides critical gap analyses, and benchmarks. Businesses will receive guidance on how to achieve their potential.

Our researchers are working with businesses to create innovative SDG reports that provide multidimensional accounts of their activities that enables key stakeholders to learn about their achievements and outstanding challenges. We have been invited to engage with leading international networks in the design of responsible business accountability mechanisms.

Birmingham Business School shares  our commitment to responsible business and is embedding elements of 17D thinking throughout  its educational programmes, building  the capacity of future leaders to ensure  long-term success by creating value responsibly.

As a research centre we are always looking for new partners to work with. If you are interested in any of these ideas please visit www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/business/research/responsible-business/index.aspx