Software review

17th January 2017


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IEMA

The environmentalist and IEMA members put non-financial reporting software to the test

Disclosure of non-financial information is mandatory for a growing number of businesses. The EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive (2014/95/EU) came into force in December 2014 and organisations covered by the legislation will need to start reporting from their 2017 financial year. About 6,000 companies across Europe will be subject 2014/95/EU and will have to produce a non-financial statement containing information on five matters and how the organisation’s performance, position and activities affect each one. The five are: environmental, social, employee, human rights, anti-corruption and bribery.

In the UK, the Companies Act 2006 (Strategic Report and Directors’ Report) Regulations 2013 requires listed companies to report on their non-financial information, including greenhouse-gas emissions. Defra says the information should be accurate, complete, consistent and comparable.

Software can help to ensure the data is robust, and can simplify the process and reduce the cost of producing reports. Built-in version control tools can provide audit trails that show when data was modified, while documents such as energy invoices can be uploaded to the system, simplifying the verification process.

To see how some of the non-financial reporting software available in the UK compares, the environmentalist invited a group of IEMA members to test three leading applications from providers Ecometrica, Greenstone and thinkstep. All three companies were included and their software scored highly in our 2013 review.

Then as now, the providers were asked to demonstrate the capabilities of their software using data and a client scenario developed for the review. The data was for a fictional company, Demo, which had 20 locations in ten countries, including China, France, Malaysia, the UK and US. Software providers were asked to upload data on energy consumption, business travel, freight and waste, for example. Whereas our 2013 assessment focused mainly on carbon accounting software, the latest review included aspects of the broader sustainability and non-financial reporting agenda, with providers supplied with health and safety statistics and CSR metrics for topics including staff training and charitable donations. Their ability to manage suppliers was also tested. Indeed, the companies were selected because their software could support broad non-financial disclosure, not just greenhouse-gas emissions data.

In a further change from our previous assessment, and to ensure the reviewers gained hands-on experience of the software, health and safety specialist and software reviewer Bridget Leathley devised tasks for the panel to undertake. The ease with which each of these could be accomplished was rated ‘great’, ‘OK’ or ‘poor’. Tasks and questions included:

  • Run a report showing the consumption and emissions for Edinburgh for all fuels for the last quarter of 2015.
  • What was the total consumption of natural gas?
  • How completely could you achieve the task?
  • Were the results presented in a meaningful way?
  • How easy would it be to teach someone how to achieve the task?
  • Display an overview of current levels of consumption across all sites – eg via a dashboard.
  • Can you drill down from the overview? For example, click on a column in a dashboard for more information.
  • How completely could you achieve the task?
  • Were the results presented in a meaningful way?
  • How easy would it be to teach someone how to achieve the task?

The firms and the software reviewed, including feedback from existing clients, are showcased below, along with a handy guide to selecting software.

Putting the software through its paces

Bridget Leathley reports on the review findings

All products reviewed are designed to help you measure, monitor and manage environmental information. There are three key areas to consider when reviewing such systems:

  • How are you going to gather the information? Consider the historical data you already have, whether it is on a different system or held on Excel spreadsheets, as well as information to be collected in the future. For example, how will data from smart meters be handled, and how will this integrate with meter readings?
  • Is the information safe – that is, will it always be available and up to date when you need it? And is it secure from non-authorised users?
  • Can you access the information in the format you need it? Think about the sort of information you need and how you like to access it. What do you want to see each time you log in, what data might you want to export, and what reports could be provided to save you time? Find out too what happens if you decide to switch systems – and ask yourself how difficult it would be for all your information to be transferred to a new system.

We devised some standard tasks for each reviewer to carry out on each system. To ensure the reviewers understood how each one worked, the vendors could instruct users but not take control of the mouse and keyboard. In addition, each vendor was asked a standard set of questions and given the opportunity to demonstrate supplier management functions.

Inputting information

All three vendors support the transfer of historical data and automatic uploads of new data using secure file transfer protocol (FTP) or an application programming interface (API).

Two problems can occur with data entry. One is that the wrong figure might have been provided, whether as a single piece of data entered directly on to a system or at some time in the past when a bank of data was uploaded. The second is missing data, which can occur due to a site’s records being unavailable for a period. All three systems can help with both issues. For example, new data can be compared with a 12-month rolling average, with that from a previous year, or by using a normalised intensity factor. Default validation rules can be applied or, in SoFi (thinkstep) and Ecometrica solutions the administration user can create different rules for different locations.

To make entry easier, all systems permit numbers to be submitted in whichever form the data has been provided, allowing them to be converted to other units. Reviewers found this easiest to follow in SoFi, where the current unit is displayed as a pull-down option.

Data outside the stated ranges will be flagged to a user for review and correction or acceptance. In Greenstone, if a user wants the system to accept an outlier a comment must be entered as to why the data is out of range. SoFi can trigger different actions (pop-ups, emails, rejection of the data) depending on how far from the required range a value is. Ecometrica provides a colour-coded alert to users, and the vendor’s analysts can also receive an alert to provide quality assurance.

All products allow clients to store other documents alongside the data that might need to be shared as evidence, such as a photograph or a copy of a bill, a policy document or a procedure. Greenstone says users can upload data evidence (notes and files) alongside the consumption and GHG data for audit purposes. It also offers a category-driven document store, with a central space for user guides, data templates and policies. In SoFi, documents can be saved and stored, each one assigned to a user group or an individual user in the system. Ecometrica says users can attach documents to each datapoint. This can be mandatory or optional on a per data point basis in line with client needs.

All systems support browser access from mobile devices, but so far no provider has seen the need for separate apps – for entering a meter reading, for instance. In the Ecometrica system, a simplified questionnaire, with just one question if necessary, can be created and sent to a person without an account. By clicking the link, they are presented with a simple form to enter data. SoFi users with a login could similarly enter the data using a simple form on a mobile device but, if offline access is required, an Excel file can be exported, completed offline without a login, and reloaded later. Greenstone says the database is app-friendly, so an app could be produced if required.

All three vendors provide assurances about security, including physical measures and encryption. Greenstone and SoFi carry out daily backups, with Ecometrica offering them hourly. Greenstone allows clients to retrieve data up to two weeks old while SoFi customers can access information entered up to three months earlier. Ecometrica stores hourly backups for a week and monthly backups for one year.

Greenstone reports that backups are securely stored offsite in the UK and that the hosting platform is ‘world-class, robust and secure’. Data in SoFi is stored in servers in Australia or the US, or at SysEleven servers in Germany, all of which are certified to ISO 27001. The location will depend on where the customer is based. Ecometrica, meanwhile, stores information at Amazon datacentres in Ireland, although it is willing to move a client’s data to another platform in a different jurisdiction.

Accessing the information

Invariably clients will not want all users to see or have access to the same data. One user might need only to provide input for a single location, another might want to see everything for a given region, while a specialist might want to see all of one type of data across the entire organisation. Some users provide input and others might be able to see reports only. Some users can enter data but not approve it, and another might be assigned to check and authorise the information.

Greenstone allows clients to give users read, write and/or approve access to determine the sites they can see in the system, and ‘nodes’ (reporting points) can be grouped into an unlimited number of views for different reporting needs. SoFi’s user management is founded on ‘role-based access control’, with out-of-the-box user groups and roles, each with different rights in the software down to the lowest level. This enables the client system administrator to issue user rights to different user groups at various sites and regions. Ecometrica says regions and users can control access and implement trickle-down permissions within the organisational hierarchy.

Being able to tailor the system gives the client better control over data security and simplifies the user interface. All three systems appear to have great flexibility over how this is configured but, whichever system you choose, check that it maps on to your workflows.

Generating reports

Just as the dashboard in a car enables the driver to read about key parameters of the vehicle’s performance without checking the handbook or looking under the bonnet, so on-screen dashboards have become a common method for giving users a fast glimpse of the data in a complex system. What you cannot do on a car dashboard but you can with many on-screen versions is use them as a means of asking about the data you are interested in by clicking and drilling down.

Reviewers found the dashboards in SoFi easier to set up and more user friendly. On data display, comments included ‘impressive’; and ‘super’ was one description given to the ease with which dashboards could be customised. The intuitive nature of drilling down to more detailed data was commended too, as was the capacity to share tailored dashboards and to assign specific ones to defined users.

Reviewers liked the ability of the Ecometrica software to select sites from a world or regional map, and felt this would be useful for large organisations with multiple sites.

All systems had similar functions for exporting data, reports and charts in different formats, including text, formatted pdf reports, image or .csv data. If a company needs to produce CDP and GHG protocol or other standard reports, having templates that produce these will save a lot of work. SoFi has report templates for CDP, GRI, GRESB, SASB as standard in the system. Ecometrica says one of the most popular reports in its system is for carbon efficiency, which shows normalised emissions against energy use across sites and countries. For health and safety, Greenstone’s software and SoFi can be used to create RIDDOR (UK) and OSHA (US) accident reports. Ecometrica focuses on environmental reporting.

When consumption under different headings for one site was required, SoFi and Ecometrica were regarded equally favourably. SoFi was described as ‘fast and flexible’ and Ecometrica ‘straightforward’. One reviewer said the Greenstone reports looked professional; others felt that the process was more ‘convoluted’ or ‘fiddly’, however. Ecometrica’s simple page layout was favoured, with a reviewer commenting that the breakdown of emissions was easy to understand. For a slightly different task, comparing fuel usage between sites, Greenstone came out as favourite for its ‘easy to view’ presentation. SoFi lost out due to the number of pop-up windows that littered the screen by the time users found the information they required.

Target setting and forecasting

All three products allow organisations to set absolute or normalised targets for consumption or GHG emissions. Greenstone and SoFi allow these targets to be shown superimposed on progress graphs or charts to make comparison with actual emissions easier.

Using Greenstone’s tool, organisations can set targets based on consumption or GHG emissions, set normalised targets and account for business-as-usual adjustments. Projection controls provide visibility of the target progress to date and future scenario setting, while an actions module records planned or in-progress actions linked to targets. SoFi has a dedicated module for improvement tracking and target setting: its performance management module lets users create and manage a portfolio of actions and projects to improve business practices and sustainability. Each action comes with information, such as associated cost, performance improvements, long-term cost savings, responsibility and timelines. Ecometrica’s system supports target setting, while initiatives to reduce emissions can be specified and tracked in the platform.

Ecometrica offers a separate analytics tool that is superior to those in the basic product. However, reviewers felt moving between applications and the wide range of options available could make using it more complicated. However, the graphs produced by the analytics module were popular, so this might just be a matter of remembering to set aside time and a budget for training.

Supplier management

All three systems provide support for managing suppliers, although with Greenstone the supplier portal is separate but integrated, which customers can purchase on its own. Ecometrica supply management is an optional costed module. Suppliers can be benchmarked against others in the system, but only SoFi offers a benchmarking library at additional cost to allow external comparison of suppliers.

All systems let clients use industry standard questionnaires or their own bespoke versions. Greenstone provides standard questions on modern slavery, health and safety and carbon emissions, for example, while SoFi offers questionnaires to support clients to meet Rainforest Alliance certification and SEDEX (Supplier Ethical Data Exchange) standards. Once questionnaires have been set up, all systems can be configured to prompt suppliers to complete them with evidence. For responses that have an expiry date – say, an insurance certificate – suppliers can be prompted to provide updates.

Greenstone says its supplier portal is scalable across entire supply bases. It is based on the firm’s enterprise architecture and has been stress-tested for up to 100,000 suppliers. SoFi clients have thousands of suppliers entering information into the solution, with one having more than 3,000 users. Ecometrica says scalability across the supply chain is built into its platform, with each supplier behaving as a client in essence.

Summing up

Overall, reviewers scored SoFi as more usable, although none of the products suffered any major shortcomings. Reviews found SoFi’s intensity metrics less obvious to apply than when using Greenstone’s and Ecometrica’s solutions. However, SoFi was considered more intuitive overall, particularly for using and creating dashboards, for filtering the data, and for selecting dates. One reviewer felt the Ecometrica solution was ‘easier than the other two’ to navigate for a more complex task the vendors were asked to perform. Three reviewers particularly liked Ecometrica’s video user guides.

All three products allow clients to bring together methods of managing environment and sustainability data (and, if you want, health and safety information) into a unified system, replacing separate ones and spreadsheets. Supplier management is part of the SoFi Enterprise offering, but extra in Greenstone and Ecometrica, so check that pricing includes the functionality you need. Check too that the report templates, dashboards and data you need are included in the quoted price because some are provided as standard, but others are extra.

Greenstone

Greenstone says its software and services can help organisations to define, measure, manage and report the non-financial aspects of their operations. The firm’s clients in more than 90 countries include legal firm Clifford Chance, rail operator EuroStar and the UK’s National Health Service. Greenstone is an accredited CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) partner and a registered organisational stakeholder of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The cloud-based software is built on a Microsoft.Net platform and is compatible with all modern browsers.

Greenstone’s non-financial reporting solutions consist of four modules:

  • Environment – clients can upload data from a wide range of sources, including energy, transport, waste, water and fugitive gases. Data is processed automatically to track consumption and calculate the associated carbon emissions using recognised international standards, such as the GHG Protocol, Defra, Bilan Carbone, NGA and CGGI.
  • Health and safety – collection of health and safety metrics, including incident reporting and lost-time injury. Complies with RIDDOR and OSHA.
  • CSR frameworks – supports reporting requirements of global non-financial reporting frameworks, including GRI G4, CDP, UNGC, and financial exchange schemes such as FTSE4Good.
  • SupplierPortal – provides transparency across an organisation’s supplier network, ensuring that compliance and risk can be managed efficiently and effectively. Among the features are proprietary questionnaires, risk flagging and bespoke scorecards.

David Wynn, Greenstone’s head of client services, compares the modules to ‘bricks’ that customers can put together in whatever order they want. He believes it is the uncapped support that differentiates Greenstone from its competitors.

greenstoneplus.com/+44 (0)20 3031 4000

What the clients say

The University of Manchester

The University of Manchester has been using Greenstone’s software since 2012. Lucy Millard, the university’s environmental sustainability manager, praises its functionality, in particular the ease with which her team can access information: ‘[It is] easy-to-use software that meets all of our reporting requirements. We are also starting to use it to measure the impact of some non-environmental areas.’ Millard describes the support provided by Greenstone as ‘excellent’ and would recommend the software.

Sopra Steria

Technology consultancy Sopra Steria has around 6,700 staff in the UK. Head of environmental sustainability Siva Niranjan says the firm has used Greenstone software since 2010 and is very satisfied with it: ‘We use it to manage issues relating to environmental sustainability – business travel and energy. We have an open dialogue with Greenstone and our additional functionality (gaps) has been embraced in later releases. Our statutory auditor and environment auditor have both commended the software functionality.’ He describes the support from Greenstone as excellent and that it exceeds all expectations. ‘This is a big differentiator compared with other companies,’ says Niranjan. Having compared Greenstone with other software vendors in 2015, he believes it also offers good value and that the firm ‘is willing to go that extra mile for its clients’.

Ecometrica

Ecometrica describes its software as the most comprehensive platform for sustainability and data management. It brings together sustainability, environment, risk and business management with geospatial intelligence and mapping applications. Ecometrica works with more than 250 companies on five continents. Clients include power generation firm Aggreko, food company Compass Group and semiconductor business ARM.

The platform is arranged into four suites of modules:

  • Sustainability – 14 modules, ranging from GHG/carbon and science-based targets to business travel, waste and water. These are used by some of the world’s largest companies to collect a diverse dataset in order to bring clarity to a range of non-financial business information.
  • Mapping – ten modules to help clients understand complex geospatial data, assess risk to forests, populations and agriculture, and track supply chain sustainability initiatives.
  • Reporting – includes built-in reporting for ten established environmental standards and frameworks, such as CDP, GHG protocol and DJSI.
  • Advanced – bespoke modules developed to meet an organisation’s reporting requirements and which are not covered in the core offering.

Each client has its own dedicated GHG analyst, something head of marketing Mike Paul believes is a key differentiator between Ecometrica and its competitors: ‘The analysts will check all the data that is inputted by the client and question areas of concern. They provide a unique quality assurance.’ The software generates ‘audit-ready outputs’ for independent assessment without the need for further calculations, clarification, data manipulation or other pre-audit work, says Paul. The factors and controls for audit-ready outputs are tested and assured annually by PwC.

ecometrica.com/+44 (0)131 662 4342

What the clients say

Ocado

Ocado has used Ecometrica’s software since August 2015. Ethical trade analyst Daniel Hourigan says the UK online supermarket uses it to help manage its carbon footprint across the business and keep track of efficiency from year to year. ‘As a tool to track and visualise our carbon footprint data we have found the Ecometrica system to be resourceful and very user friendly The system does this in a very clear way,’ he says. ‘I would definitely recommend the software to companies seeking to do the same.’

Hourigan says the software is flexible and data entry simple and clear, and contains an array of useful metrics. ‘The training and support services provided were professional and Ecometrica is keen to give assistance. They have an excellent quality assurance process that we’ve found to be efficient and timely, especially when keeping to deadlines for our reporting.’

Pearson

Pearson is an educational publisher and service provider, with more than 35,000 employees in about 70 countries. It describes sustainability as a fundamental enabler of its commercial success. The firm has used Ecometrica’s software for four years. Director of sustainability Peter Hughes says: ‘Software functionality is good. Areas of excellence are the tailored support provided, audit-ready output and that emission factor updates are managed. An area for improvement is reporting functionality, which is promised as an upgrade shortly.

‘Ecometrica offer software as part of a broader canvas of environmental support, which is valuable. Yes, I would recommend them.’

thinkstep

SoFi is the name of the sustainability reporting software solution from thinkstep, previously known as PE International. The company has around 2,500 customers – including 40% of the Fortune 500 – and more than 20 years’ experience supporting organisations with their compliance, reporting and sustainability goals. Clients include water filtration business Brita, tyre firm Continental, paper products company Kimberly-Clark and utility Iberdrola. SoFi includes the latest certified GRI and CDP questionnaires and industry standards for reporting to the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board. It enables auto-complete disclosure for sustainability reporting standards such as CDP, GRI, DJSI and GRESB.

SoFi covers: environment; health and safety; sustainability management and reporting; carbon management and reporting; energy management; supply chains; buildings; and materiality assessment. Environment and health and safety features include:

  • managing key performance indicators;
  • continual improvement and programmes for ISO 14001 and 50001 or EMAS systems;
  • managing site audits and follow-up actions;
  • managing compliance and permits; and
  • tracking and logging incidents and accidents, and defining follow-up action.

UK managing director Sandy Smith says SoFi enables organisations to integrate reporting and sustainability performance management across their businesses, and can connect directly to an enterprise resource planning system and utility meters to monitor all environmental and social aspects. Smith says the software is accredited by CDP and was the first to be certified to the Global Reporting Initiative’s GRI G4 framework. SoFi was named the number one sustainability management software by analyst firm Verdantix in its Green Quadrant report.

thinkstep.com/+44 (0)203 463 8770

What the clients say

Belron

Belron, whose UK and Ireland brand is Autoglass, is a vehicle glass repair and replacement company that has been using thinkstep’s SoFi software for about one year. Head of environmental efficiency Justin Bazalgette says it is enough for Belron’s limited requirements. ‘It addresses our needs for an easy-to-complete system that collects all the data necessary to calculate our carbon footprint.’ Bazalgette is impressed by the support from its key contact at thinkstep: ‘The discussions are sometimes quite complex, particularly when dealing with new functionality as we think and work through the challenges.’

He believes that SoFi is best suited to complex users rather than companies with less complicated data requirements. ‘It provides a powerful tool to collect, validate and evaluate data as well as good management and analysis tools.’

Tarmac

Tarmac has only recently completed implementing SoFi, but sustainability adviser Helen Atkins says the building materials company is particularly looking forward to using the reporting and analytics module, which she believes will save the firm a lot of time: ‘This tool allows us to collect data in a systematic and auditable way, providing us with the opportunity to gather a diverse range of information. The reporting element will also allow us to create a range of corporate reports at the press of a button, something that is very time-consuming at present.’

Atkins describes the support provided by thinkstep as ‘brilliant’. ‘They are always on hand to support and have been professional throughout,’ she says.

Making the right choice: selecting software

Last July, analysts at technology consultancy Verdantix forecast that the global market for environment and health and safety (EHS) software would exceed $1.4bn in 2020. It is a crowded market. Software research business Capterra lists 38 solutions in its sustainability management category and 93 under the environmental management classification. So how do you select the best option? Here are some tips.

  • Be clear – draw up a comprehensive list of requirements and separate those that are a must (needs) from those it would be nice to have (wants). Ask why you need software. What is its purpose? Managing Information for Climate Change Reporting, a guide from CDP on using software tools produced with vendors Ecometrica, credit360 and thinkstep (bit.ly/2gCdmA7), advises: ‘Ensure you understand the reasons for deploying a software system and what data you require.’
  • Involve others – multiple stakeholders mean multiple requirements, so involve those affected. Talk to the IT department early on, but be clear about your priorities and stay involved in the process – do not let them drive the procurement.
  • Affordability – calculate how much you can afford. Look for additional or hidden costs and whether you would be paying for something that is not needed. Calculate the long-term cost, say over the next five to seven years.
  • Gather information – do your research: use requests for information (capabilities of the vendor) and requests for proposals (how the software would deliver your objectives) to draw up a shortlist of software and vendors.
  • Take a test drive – invite four or five vendors to demonstrate their software and test the different solutions using your own data and common tasks you would need to accomplish. Involve those who would be regularly using the software. Demos can be good for prioritising needs.
  • Functionality – can the software do what you want? Is it flexible? Can functionality be tailored to your specific needs?
  • Ongoing support – find out how the software would be implemented and what training would be provided. What are the arrangements for support and maintenance? Be clear on what you will receive for your annual fee. Will you have a dedicated adviser and customer service contact? Are upgrades included? Remember, you are purchasing a relationship with the vendor as well as static software.
  • Take up references – talk to clients already using software you are considering purchasing. Seek references from at least three organisations. Ask whether they are satisfied with development and support of the software. Also, check that the vendor is accredited to the CDP, GRI, for example, or can link to other frameworks, such as ISO and UNGC, if important.
  • Due diligence – how often is the data backed up and where is it stored? Is the data encrypted? Agree ownership of it: if you decide in the future to end the relationship, establish who would have custody before signing a contract.
  • Future proof – ensure the software is scalable so it can evolve as the business and demands for information expand.
  • What is the vendor's plans for the software?
  • Longevity - look at the history of the vendor. How long has it been operating? Does it have a record of success? Is it growing or downsizing?

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