Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sustainability as Strategic Imperative: Executives like "Deer in Headlights"

BP’s oil spill is having a major fallout in a climate where increasingly executives of major corporations find themselves caught as “deer in headlights” when it comes to societal or environmental (sustainability) issues. Surprising for a company that not too long ago launched a campaign to change its identity from British Petroleum to "Beyond Petroleum". While these stories unfold- educators, industry members and students came together at the University of Guelph in a workshop on how to integrate sustainability into business education for the next generation.

Frances Edmonds, Hewlett-Packard’s director of environmental programs (Canada) shared that positions with titles like the one she has are rare in business, and she had to create her own position at HP! Clearly there is a long way to go. HP’s eco solutions program creates a “closed loop plastic recycling process” for ink cartridges, helping the environment, yet hits its profitability. On how the organization deals with such tensions, she suggested that some benefits accrue towards branding and market leadership, and more tangibly, sometimes towards reusing the intellectual property developed towards other projects. It does seem though that such executives work on the hope that as society becomes more aware of these issues, long-term profitability would be positively impacted as well. Placing business education center-stage, she suggested educators need to ensure such a society comes about.

Toby Heaps and Jon-Eric Lappano from Corporate Knights, “the magazine for clean capitalism” came up with some creative ideas, perhaps radical at this stage:

What if there’s no business degree, but a joint-degree with a major or minor in another area that builds more appreciation of sustainability issues? However, they also argued that we should rethink the possibilities and put business schools at ground zero of creating such a change. They also touched on a theme that came up throughout the day: integrate sustainability into multiple courses – the last year single elective course just doesn’t cut it. This also tied-in with emphasis on experiential student learning through real world projects on sustainability initiatives. A surprise was the number of instances shared by educators on how their students often took the lead on such issues and projects: student-driven initiatives need to be given more freedom and faculty needs to reduce its role as a “speed bump” in the process.

It does seem that sustainability is becoming a strategic imperative, and also ties in with key themes in strategy on integrating across functions and disciplines, along with a revival of qualitative, context-based understanding.

Barry Colbert perhaps summed it well, drawing on his research to share that thinking of the three circles of economy, society and environment as overlapping in only some parts is logically nonsensical and dangerous:


How could parts of the economy not be part of society or environment? Instead, a nested view is more accurate: 



One wonders if BP executives or Wall Street executives would see it that way anytime soon, despite the Congressional hearings, public pressure and more…

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Incidentally, “Strategy and You” cards were handed out to a few participants and most seem excited by this initiative. It seems our unique mandate has several takers out there, and it just needs time commitment and initiative to get things rolling. We continue looking for more people to join in and submit blog posts. 

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