WMSBF developing cloud based interactive tool

April 15, 2012
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The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum is developing a cloud-based, interactive database that will measure, compare and report key information from its members, partners and other similar forums.

The data is likely to help businesses and institutions track how effective their sustainability efforts are, guide the creation of educational resources they can use to improve those endeavors, and determine the impact the region’s sustainable practices have — and on a quantitative basis.

In short, the forum’s Assessment Tools and Research Initiative will fill a hole in the sustainability push and push it further. Currently, there isn’t a locally centralized and nearly instantaneous source that can help companies conserve and more efficiently use energy, waste and materials, and also share new insights into social responsibility practices. But that is the revolutionary objective and the projected outcome of the forum’s initiative.

When the project is completed, which could be as early as next year, making an assessment will be like comparing day to night, with night being the forum’s first offering that followed its founding in 1994.

“It’s really been an evolutionary process. If you look back to the very beginning, one of the very first things that we produced was a self-assessment guide as a way to try to help organizations understand the concepts of sustainability and then also try to figure out a way to evaluate and assess where they stood. And it was a printed-paper tool. It was very useful and it got used in a number of different ways,” said Dave Rinard, director of global environmental performance at Steelcase Inc. and WMSBF secretary.

Rinard said the forum then moved from paper to a more interactive online survey that worked well for a time but eventually turned out to be too static for what the organization really wanted to accomplish. A two-year, $49,960 grant, however, that WMSBF received from the state Department of Environmental Quality allows the forum’s self-assessment effort to evolve and expand into what it sees as a truly interactive tool and data-collection system.

“We believe it will dramatically increase the value of the information that is collected and the tools that will be available to the population that will be able to access that database,” said Rinard.

The database will always be accessible to members, and companion guides will be created for them. Alison Waske, the forum’s treasurer, said the organization wants the effort to be collaborative in the sense that when businesses complete the assessment guide, WMSBF will be able to do some valuable and anonymous benchmarking. That benchmarking will let each member know where it stacks up in relation to others in a particular community or industry.

“The next step that is really nice is that it will be quantitative. Our earlier assessment guide was really qualitative in that it got you thinking about different ideas that you could implement on a sliding scale, like how much effort have you put into these areas and how much have you implemented of these sustainability programs? But now with these new guides, we’re focusing on a lot more metrics and quantitative-style assessments, and that will allow more of that kind of benchmarking for members to utilize. It’s definitely more informative when you have numbers that you can compare,” said Waske, who is the sustainable business officer for Metro Health.

“In addition, it will provide a better assessment of our region as a whole in sustainability from a business perspective,” she added.

Rinard said with all the sustainable practices going on in West Michigan, a region well-known for its triple-bottom line accomplishments, there is a huge need for a single, central location to pull all these efforts together. “There is so much going on. We talk about it as a regional coalescence,” said Rinard.

“The idea that these groups are all out there operating and are building this network of connections is what continues to really help make West Michigan one of the leaders and such a strong force in the arena,” he added, noting that groups as far south as Benton Harbor are involved.

Database users will have to be licensed, and the DEQ grant, for which the forum had to provide a 25 percent match, will cover those fees for the first two years. Only WMSBF members will be issued licenses in the first year. Members of the West Michigan Employers Association will be licensed the following year through an agreement it has with the forum.

“We will be testing, evaluating and fine-tuning during that period. After that, it will be promoted around the state, particularly to other sustainable business forums,” said Lisa Locke, who oversees the forum’s daily operations.

The forum plans to make the database accessible to non-members on a fee basis. “Obviously, we’d like people to join because we see a great deal of value in membership, but for those who want to access the tool, there will be a way for them to do that without requiring them to be a member,” said Rinard.

The software the forum will use to operate the database is called Chalk & Wire, which is interactive and cloud-based. Locke said members of the forum’s Tools and Resources Committee recently returned from a training session, and the site will be rolled out at the May membership meeting.

“Companies are more and more interested in implementing some sustainability projects and programs internally, and they’re going well, but there aren’t a lot of resources out there that tell them where they really fit in the spectrum. Am I doing a lot more than my peers in my business group, or am I lagging behind? I think one of the biggest benefits of this tool is that companies are going to be able to start to see where they are on this sliding scale,” said Waske.

“Then once you identify that through the tool, the other really great aspect of it is the tool will directly link users to informational sources specific to each question and area within the tool. So if you find out you’re lagging behind in waste management, for instance, there will be tools immediately available to you to be able to better understand what some of the programs are that you can look to implement.”

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