Taking on the Sustainable Enterprise Challenge

Vastly accelerating the transformation of business into sustainable enterprise requires addressing at a global scale the economic (eg. markets), political (eg. regulations) and social (eg. values) factors that limit and enable any one firm’s actions.  In GOLDEN, I’ve been taking leadership with development of the Ecosystems Labs to tackle that challenge.

Of course this is an enormously audacious goal, but we live in times that absolutely require such audaciousness.  There is only so much that enlightened individuals and companies can do on their own about their impact on issues like climate change, equality and growth.  We also need to change the structures and “social institutions” that they work within, and in this era of globalization we need a global strategy.

To figure out this strategy, I’ve been consulting with some of the people who I most admire in large systems change, including Otto Scharmer, Angela Wilkinson, Jim Woodhill, Adam Kahane and the Reos Partners crowd, Chris Pinney, Rafael Rameriz, Hilary Bradbury-Huang, Sandra Waddock and Peter Senge.  And I’ve been delighted to meet more along the way, including Gill Coleman, Ron Fry, Dayna Cunningham, Oana Branzei, and yesterday Rick Locke.

Industry Ecosystems

All this talk has produced a Concept Note.  The heart of the strategy is to develop change through industry ecosystems.  In an industry like finance (a favorite change target of mine), that means all the businesses that associate with the industry, and all the stakeholders in the industry.  This relates to work I’ve done earlier with the Global Finance Initiative.  Peter Senge pointed out that people relate much more to human needs as a focus of change, such as water, food and jobs.  Yes, I said, and those are a critical and important focus.  However, GOLDEN’s focus is on changing the business enterprise, and therefore we are industry-focused.  Both are needed.

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Energy Ecosystem Example:  Successful transition of energy companies away from fossil fuels toward more eco-friendly and sustainable energy sources is a vital element of a sustainable future, a fact that leading traditional utilities and companies producing fuel already recognize.  Along with renewable energy companies, energy providers have a particularly rich record of engagement with their ecosystems, which include not only the companies themselves, but also local communities, regulators, environmentalists, and investors.<p>

Learning Cycles

The second part of the strategy is to create a learning cycle dynamic that involves (1) assessment of an industry

ecosystem in terms of its current structures and sustainability trends/issues with gatherings of the stakeholders to create a “system consciousness and perspective”, visions of desired futures and identify actions that could shift the structures in the needed direction, (2) support the development of some of those key actions, and (3) create a “learning process” to continually adjust and build on actions.  Altogether this describes an ecosystem lab.

Support Current Activity

The third core part of the strategy arises with the tremendous work that is already being done by many people.  Since GOLDEN is a global network of academics and their research centers, they are the initial organizing focus to take leadership in developing the labs (hence my conversation list).  They will be gathering in two separate one-day meetings in October.  One is sponsored by the MIT Sloan Initiative for Sustainable Business and Society and the Presencing Institute in Cambridge, USA;  the second by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford.  Those meetings will identify details in the development of the ecosystem labs.

Whatever those details, they will build with and aim to enhance others’ great work, including other labs such the Finance Lab, the Sustainable Food Lab, the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, and RE-AMP (energy).

Big Science, Engaged Scholarship

These Labs and GOLDEN in general are distinctive in the academic world because of two qualities.  One is that it is “Big Science”, a technical term usually associated with the physical sciences, in projects such as the international space station, the human genome project, and CERN. GOLDEN is grounded in the belief that such an approach is needed by the management, environmental, large system change and associated social sciences, to address critical issues around sustainability today.

GOLDEN also frames itself as an “engaged scholarship” strategy, where “engaged scholarship” comprises action research and other approaches that engage stakeholders in collaborating producing knowledge and action. This emphasis arises from the view that social sciences, particularly management schools, must vastly enhance their relevance and deepen their relationship to challenges and opportunities to enhance the common good. This perspective has led GOLDEN to emphasize the importance of the labs that also occur at the enterprise and individual levels. (More on Big Science and Engaged Scholarship.)

Success Factors

GOLDEN began about three years ago with the impressive imagination and indefatigable energy of Maurizio Zollo.  As President of the European Academy of Management, he is a recognized academic leader.  In my work with Global Action Networks, I have noted that from the time people initially gather to develop an idea to the actual “production” of outputs is usually a period of 3 to 5 years.  GOLDEN is just entering that period.  Being patient, persistent, a learner and having access to sufficient networks and resources are critical to success.  The success in this case should be multiple:  accelerating sustainable enterprise, new approaches to business academia, and development of new large system change knowledge and capacity.

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