Annika Arras: Estonia’s development depends on our readiness for collaboration

26. Jul 2018
Annika Arras, CEO/General Manager and Partner at Miltton Nordics, on how to improve Estonian society through more cooperation between different segments of society.

Let me start by explaining why I consider myself an incurable optimist. I recently read an article that talked about the origins of the idiom “black sheep”. Apparently, back in 18th century England, it was observed that each and every flock of lambs had at least one black sheep. In those days, they were viewed as an embodiment of evil and a bad omen. In addition, they were traditionally considered less valuable because it was impossible to dye their wool. However, only a half century later, sheepherders from Sussex began to approach the birth of black sheep as a sign of good luck. Today we know thanks to science that their blackness is due to a recessive gene that manifests 25% of the time, and that’s how black sheep are born. No luck or misfortune ensues, they’re just a different colour than the others.

We can choose to believe what we want, and we can assign meaning to events as we please, and we can also choose to base our decisions on facts.

The reason why I opened with a story about black sheep is because we can’t do without them anywhere. Perfect people don’t exist. We sometimes run into black sheep in the streets, either in the guise of entrepreneurs, civic activists/volunteers, public officials/servants or politicians. However, things may get quite woolly if we focus only on black sheep. I usually don’t let myself be bothered by them, although  I do acknowledge their existence. White sheep are the ones that I notice at first because there’s just so many of them. And I believe that society evolves on the basis of examples.

In my optimistic view, things are great in Estonia. Of course, this does not mean that there are no problems or better alternatives but I encourage everyone to focus on finding solutions instead of finger-pointing. That, in turn, means setting an example.

Estonia’s development depends on our readiness for collaboration, it entails a mutually respective debate culture, ability to assess situations objectively, behaviours that damage our living environment minimally, actions that are not motivated only by self-interest, education and cultivation. And I’ll say it once more –collaboration. However, it is not enough to have readiness for collaboration, we also need the capacity for it. Although social sciences have classified us into sectors – public, private, and civic – ; and we have also been classified based on power (e.g. media as the fourth estate), there is no escaping the fact that we are all human and citizens, regardless of the roles we are performing. Thus, the welfare of our country is our shared responsibility, and change starts from each and every one of us.

The civic sector comprises active citizens who want to do something about it, who want to contribute, make things better. They (we) care. Some are worried about their friends, others have experienced hardship themselves, some consider global implications, and the effect of international changes on our lives. But how much world-fixing can you accomplish with all this heartache? Many initiatives have been launched running purely on enthusiasm but only few manage to reach the finish line because most run out of energy mid-way. Just wanting something is not enough. Where do we get the necessary skills and tools?

The most recent texts on corporate responsibility define entrepreneurs as corporate citizens. Although their social activism may not be completely selfless, it always serves some higher purpose in addition to profit-making.

In Estonia, the understanding of corporate social responsibility is still only in its early stages. We have excellent examples of companies that understand that in addition to making a profit their activities should also consider the larger social perspective – what values they represent (value-based); what will be our future operating environment (priorities/objectives); how could we make a tangible difference (impact), and what kind of an example do we set for others (public image). Nevertheless, this mindset is still quite exceptional, although there are more contributors than we realise because there is a considerable number of companies that just don’t approach their activities from this perspective – without linking it to their larger business strategy, not to mention public disclosure for the purposes of setting an example.

Estonian people believe in newspapers because our faith in the media’s ability to effect social change is strong (see the study conducted by Miltton). On the other hand, they are also wary of the so-called mainstream media because it possesses the power to propel people and ideas into the stratosphere or take them down. Thus, the media is a useful but also a dangerous tool that should be used for the right purposes. Experience from around the world has shown that the media likes companies that are socially responsible, and they are also liked by readers, and by conscious consumers. People want to work for companies that are doing something good, companies that have a good public image, companies they can be proud of. The media has an excellent opportunity to both set an example, and also help promote values created by others.

On the world scale, Estonia is a small country but within Estonia the government plays an important role – in many areas the public sector is the largest contractor, which also makes it a critical market influencer, and therefore it should serve as an example for everyone else. The manner how and what the government procures, what kinds of values are upheld (only deciding based on lowest cost?), has a direct impact on all those who take part in public procurement tenders, and also on those who will eventually be on the receiving end of the products or services provided by the public sector. Thus, the government must analyse how its investments affect our social, economic, and natural environment, and what could be improved in that regard.

In order to make socially responsible behaviour a natural part of our daily lives, all parties must engage in deliberate and continuous collaboration. In order to find common ground, we must speak in a language that speaks to others. All business is motivated by profit, the government works to improve the well-being of its citizens, the civic sector aims for a better life. The results can be achieved through cooperation or operating collectively.