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Look Under the Hood with a Materiality Assessment: Q&A with Amath Gomis

Conducting a materiality assessment is akin to taking your car to the shop for an inspection, says Amath Gomis, senior sustainability manager for AT&T. Both exercises can significantly improve performance in the long run.

Gomis will be speaking about materiality assessments at the 2017 Environmental Leader Conference in June. Recently we caught up with him to understand the challenges and benefits involved — and why a materiality assessment is worth undertaking.

What is a materiality assessment and why is it important to do one?

One good way to think about materiality assessment would be getting your vehicle inspected. You get to pop the hood and understand what’s going on. If there are any opportunities for growth or items that you need to address, you can get to them before they become larger issues.

What does a materiality assessment entail?

Essentially you’re gathering data from a variety of stakeholders, whether they be consumers, interested parties, the communities you work in, nonprofits that are part of your industry, people from your supply chain, people who help run your business on a day-to-day basis, your leadership team. You’re gathering their opinions about a set of topics and seeing how they think those topics impact the business. Then you’re measuring their responses. You come out with a great understanding of what’s important.

Which steps should be taken before a company considers doing a materiality assessment?

One thing we have now is the rich amount of peer data. I recommend companies look at their industry. If other companies they’ve identified as peers report on sustainability, they’re probably doing a materiality assessment.

If you look outside of your company into the larger sector and see that other peers have done one, that’s probably a good indication that you should do one as well. You can review what they’ve done as a primer to see how they identified their resources, what was their process like, and would that work for you. You don’t have to be the first one out of the gate.

How might conflicts arise during a materiality assessment?

You get a lot of different opinions. The advocacy groups care passionately and may have a narrow and deep understanding of a specific topic. For a materiality assessment, it’s better to have people who have the deep knowledge but also a broad understanding. How you can manage that is by going for a balance of specialist and generalist. It’s important from the onset that you tell people directly to think broadly about the topics being presented.

When did AT&T start doing materiality assessments?

We conducted the first back in 2007 – 2008, when building out the corporate sustainability program. There was one in 2011 as well. We did one in 2014 and another one in 2016 because we merged with DirecTV. We wanted to make sure our material topics were material for our expanded company.

How does AT&T approach materiality assessment?

AT&T is a Fortune 10 company, which means we have a lot of stakeholders. We structured our materiality assessment to do a lot of due diligence. We reviewed companies similar to ours in the technology and the content space, and looked at material topics for them.

We worked with our senior leadership and interviewed them. With that, we were able to come up a list of preliminary topics. Then we worked across the business asking for stakeholders who could provide insight into AT&T. We made sure they knew we were asking for maybe 15 minutes of their time over the course of two weeks. More than 650 external surveys went out. We also had hundreds of internal stakeholders take a version of the survey — we wanted to make sure that employees’ voices were heard.

How did you come up with the survey questions to get useful information while keeping it short?

We worked with a third party to help us craft the survey questions in a way that we could provide options. Some of them were just ‘rank A through D most important to least important’ so it’s not a binary response.

You have all these different voices that you bring to the table. Some organizations may use a charrette. Some may feel that getting stakeholders together in a room and capturing that information is good. It depends on your corporate culture and what resonates with your stakeholders.

What’s an example of topic that’s material for you?

One topic for AT&T that’s remained material over the years is education. We have a program in the U.S. called AT&T Aspire to decrease the high school dropout rate. Having an educated workforce isn’t just an issue that touches one component of American society. Everyone is impacted. That’s why we decided to go after the high school graduation rate.

Since 2008, we spent about $317 million on education projects. We want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to live to their fullest potential, and that AT&T has a skilled workforce into the future. It’s also the introduction of new technology into the classrooms, getting them exposed to it early on.

Back to your initial car analogy, what happens once you’ve looked under the hood?

You’ve made sure that everything is in order. You might learn something new from the mechanic. Some of the fear that you may have had before is gone. Now you can go forward with more information, a better understanding of what you need to do, and what you need to put in to keep it going smoothly.

Amath Gomis will be speaking at the Environmental Leader Conference in Denver June 5-7, 2017. His track, Managing Conflicting Interests in Prioritizing Materiality Assessments, starts at 9:45 am on June 7.

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