Let’s Be Frank: Who are the Stakeholders?

By Inspector Frank. October 28, 2021

Editor’s Note:  Writing under the pseudonym Inspector Frank, the author of this column offers a first-hand, candid view of what he has witnessed throughout his career. His purpose in sharing these experiences and opinions is to encourage readers to think deeper about what they do, why they do it, and the possible impact of their decisions.

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When I went back to school to start my third attempt at a career, I needed to write lab reports, technical papers, presentations, etc. I remember having it drilled into me to “know your audience.” Who are you writing for? Is it other technical people, is it upper management who may not be technically savvy, or is it for someone else entirely?

That’s probably the first time I started thinking about the bigger picture in the world. In the frame of understanding my current setting better.

Don’t get me wrong; I had written before, including papers, school reports, military reports, and even for pleasure occasionally, but I had never really sat down to think about my audience to that level of detail. Do I change my use of technical language? Do I skip technical language and try to make it as understandable as possible? Is the person reading this going to be positively attuned to my work or do I need to write to win their trust?

When I started working for an engineering consulting firm, this became critical. Was I writing a report summarizing the effects of the heat treatment for a company that was looking for technical advice or direction, or was I writing a summary of a failure analysis that was going to have to be understandable to a court full of non-technical people? How about the information I was presenting? Did I need to make graphs, charts, or other visualizations of data to support my conclusions to technical or non-technical people? What is it my audience would really want out of this?

As I moved more into the petrochemical inspection world, these same questions would still come up. Who is the audience for what I am doing? In another way of looking at it, I also started realizing that the real question is Who are the stakeholders involved and what are their interests and motivations?

If you are currently employed as a contractor, employee, or manager within an owner-user organization this is a very important concept to consider.

Right now, in my career, I do a wide variety of work. I still do direct inspection work (yeah – I still put on coveralls and crawl through equipment), but these days I also do a lot more program development and management. At either end of that spectrum, understanding who the stakeholders and target audience are helps me to write reports or present information more effectively.

It also helps me understand why sometimes things appear to happen that have no basis in the reality that is the integrity world. To a wider extent, it helps me understand some of what is happening in the greater world as well.

But let’s go back to the audience for a second. If I have done an inspection and am very familiar with the company I am working for, it is very easy to present that information. I know the people involved, I know their level of understanding of technical terms, inspection techniques, damage mechanisms, and so forth. That knowledge allows me to put together my findings and any supporting NDE/materials testing in such a way that I know it will be received well and, because of that, they will ask me back to do more work.

But what if I don’t know the company well? Now, I am trying to write for an audience and stakeholders that are unknown to me. This is where I really enjoy the challenge and would like to think I am reasonably good at it. What I do (and I am not alone in this, nor was it originally my idea) is write a non-technical summary up front in such a way that anyone from the company’s secretary to a corrosion engineer can get the gist of what may be wrong and what likely needs to be done about it. I then follow that with the body of the report that includes all the technical nitty gritty that is concluded with a very technical discussion. In this manner, I know my report will be useful to the client no matter who ends up reading it. It’s not rocket science.

So, covering the stakeholders in an inspection report is not too hard; again, just think of the audience. But what if you are an integrity employee in a multinational petrochemical company wondering why the company seems to be doing some really dumb sh*t?

To help understand the greater ‘political’ situation, apply the same thought process. Who are the stakeholders and audience, and what do they hope to get out of the situation?

As I look at the greater petrochemical industry around me in the world today, some odd things pop up. Demand is down slightly for private transportation consumer fuel (because of the pandemic), while transportation of goods fuel needs has gone up (again, because of the pandemic). The agriculture industry is still screaming for petrochemical-supplied fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides. The demand for plastics and battery components has risen like crazy, yet the media presents the petrochemical energy sector in a bad light and says we are at the end. Maybe? But I don’t think so. The alternatives can’t provide the energy or the supplies that the world needs and wants right now. Regardless, why are stocks and investments in petrochemical companies not doing so well?

Supply and demand would dictate otherwise in a truly free market system, but still we see a lagging industry. Hiring freezes are happening in many areas of the world. Norway, for example, has had a hiring moratorium for most positions in their state oil company (Equinor ASA) even though it has stayed financially strong. Projects are on hold or shut down even though there are strong demands for the goods those processes produce. Decisions get made all over the world that don’t seem to make sense.

Again, look at the stakeholders involved. The simplest answer to explain why stupid decisions seem to get made usually revolves around money -- either making a lot of it or stopping a loss of it. Why does a company seem to want to stop doing what would help make it money? You can take a look at the stock prices and where investors are funneling their funds for the answer. Most boards of directors are given the responsibility of growing stock value and unfortunately that doesn’t always mean building a strong business. 

Governments make decisions (in the capitalist world) with goals to keep economies strong and investments high while hoping to be re-elected. This unfortunately does not mean keeping the voters happy in a lot of places, but rather, keeping the lobbying groups and businesses that support election costs happy. 

This means a lot of what we are currently seeing is driven by greed and fear. Fear of what we might lose, and greed over what we could gain.

I don’t want to preach, and I don’t want to put ideas in your head. I am not that smart. What I would like the integrity world to do is think about the stakeholders involved – whether they are writing the best report possible for the people who need to read and act on it, or if they are contemplating why the company they work for seems to be behaving contrary to common sense.

Guard the gates. At the end of the day, the world we live in will always require a massive amount of energy to run. We who have ended up in the integrity field are trying to keep those systems running safely so the world can carry on in whatever way it sees fit.

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