An Ecosystem of Stakeholders

While we’ve traditionally considered the im­portant players in the development process to be the client (or company) and the customer, these are not the only two actors to consider. The design industry has recently started to rec­ognize the importance of deep customer under­standing (often called design or user research) in the development of successful solutions. However, from a systems perspective, there are other stakeholders to be aware of as well.

Traditional approaches to business define shareholders as the only population to consider when making business decisions. More en­lightened approaches to business include other groups, such as employees and customers. The most effective organizations, however, have learned to consider input, needs, and coopera­tion with suppliers, distributors, retailers, and other business partners throughout the supply chain. You can see where this is going. The more systems-oriented you are and the more you consider the full spectrum of sustainable issues (managing and using human, natural,

and financial capital), the wider the circle of concerns, issues, and actors to involve. These are all called stakeholders and can include, in addition to those named above, any of the fol­lowing: creditors, communities, government courts and departments (city, state, federal, and international), banks, media, institutional investors and fund managers, labor unions, insurers and re-insurers, NGOs, media, busi­ness groups, trade associations, competitors, the general public, and the environment itself (local, regional, and global).

Stakeholders can have all sorts of im­pact and exert considerable influence in remarkable ways.

Of course, no company or designer can include all of these stakeholders in all of its decisions, nor would this be appropriate. But, often, a particular stakeholder group can exert unex­pected and significant power on a company due to its behavior and offerings. (Think of citizen action groups thwarting plans for a new dump in their neighborhood.) Stakeholders

can have all sorts of impact and exert consider­able influence in remarkable ways. They can form coalitions with each other to increase their influence, like when one labor union joins with another or when an NGO teams up with a trade association. While most of these stake­holders don’t have direct corporate influence (such as voting on corporate decisions), they can exercise their power via the courts, govern­ment lobbying, economic activities, and social activities, such as boycotts, protests, and creat­ing awareness in the media and public.

Smart companies keep an eye on as many stakeholders and their concerns as possible and manage company activities and policy accord­ingly to reduce the need to respond to unex­pected stakeholder involvement. Designers, too, need to be aware of the range of stakehold­ers and their concerns if they hope to create sustainable solutions that improve conditions across environmental, social, and financial challenges.