Why Sustainability is a lot like High School Sex? (June 21, 2011)

EVENT SUMMARY – the TSSS community gathers to hear Dr. Stephanie Bertels present her research on embedding sustainability into organizational culture.
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Why is sustainability like high school sex?  Everyone’s talking about it, but few are actually doing it, and those who are doing it usually are not doing it very well.  Having placed this intriguing analogy in our minds, Tom Ewart, Managing Director of the Network for Business Sustainability introduced Dr. Stephanie Bertels to our TSSS audience on June 21, 2011.  In her talk, Embedding Sustainability into Organizational Culture: A Recipe for Innovation, Dr. Bertels shared with our audience her research into how companies can actually ‘do’ sustainability, and do it well.

Dr. Bertels is a Professor in the Faculty of Business Administration at Simon Fraser University, and lead author of Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture, a systematic review of both academic and practitioner sources related to this topic.

Everyone’s talking about it, but few are actually doing it, and those who are doing it usually are not doing it very well.

While 93% of CEOs see sustainability as important to their company’s future success, many (or dare we say, most?) of those CEOs do not know how to proceed so that they can embed sustainability into their companies’ day-to-day decisions and processes.  How can business leaders determine which practices are most effective to achieve their sustainability goals?

The Network for Business Sustainability has shown a commitment to cross-sectoral collaboration and to assembling the best research evidence for practical problems.  Dr. Bertels and her team used an evidence based management approach to review, analyze, synthesize and perhaps most importantly, organize into a usable framework, 13,756 articles, books and practitioner reports relating to embedding sustainability in organizational culture.  This work resulted in a defined ‘Portfolio Approach to Embedding Sustainability’.  59 tangible business practices were identified, then grouped together into 20 categories and the categories were divided into four quadrants based on both the intended outcome and approach required.

As organizations seek to embrace sustainability, there is often a struggle to reconcile the need to meet existing sustainability commitments (fulfillment) while also working towards changes that will help to prepare for the future and improve sustainability practices and commitments in the long term (innovation).  Perhaps this is again like high school sex, where both fulfillment and innovation can be in short supply!

A ‘culture of sustainability’ is “one in which organizational members hold shared assumptions and beliefs about the importance of balancing economic efficiency, social equity and environmental accountability.” (pg. 10)  This type of culture can be fostered through both formal and informal approaches.  An informal approach is one that targets people’s values and social norms (hearts and minds), and usually involves shared experiences, discussion and behaviour modeling.  A formal approach involves trying to shape people’s behaviour through rules, systems and procedures and generally involves codification of values and behaviour that have already begun to develop informally.

Dr. Bertels presented a framework for embedding sustainability within an organization (see diagram).  This framework takes the form of a wheel divided into four quadrants, where the vertical axis is defined by Intent, i.e. What Are You Trying to Accomplish?  (Fulfillment vs. Innovation), and the horizontal axis is defined by Approach, i.e. How Are You Going About It? (Informal vs. Formal).  These two axes result in four quadrants:  Clarifying Expectations (Formal Fulfillment), Fostering Commitment (Informal Fulfillment), Instilling Capacity for Change (Formal Innovation), and Building Momentum for Change (Informal Innovation).

An organization must use a portfolio approach, addressing practices from all four quadrants in order to effectively embed sustainability into organizational culture.  Dr. Bertels gave an example from industry when she discussed how Suncor had been so focused on innovation that it was in fact a sustainability pioneer in some areas, and yet had not focused enough on fulfillment and found itself in the situation of being in a compliance failure.  As a result of that failure, Dr. Bertels worked with Suncor as they took a close look at the role of sustainability in their business processes – they found that for them, a significant problem lay in the fact that while sustainability innovation was a high priority for the company, it was not integrated in the system of gates for decision making that was the basis of their project management system.  Suncor learned from this experience and has since formally integrated sustainability into its business processes in its new model of ‘operational excellence’.

…a significant problem lay in the fact that while sustainability innovation was a high priority for the company, it was not integrated in the system…

Upon conclusion of the presentation there was a very active audience discussion on the application of the framework as well as issues relating to embedding a culture of sustainability into an organization.  For example, the audience questioned Dr. Bertels about the role of a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) and she indicated that it could be advisable to have two CSOs: one person looking at fulfillment while another looks at innovation.  She also suggested that as we move forward, and sustainability becomes fully integrated into business practices, we might move away from the need to even have a dedicated CSO.

The wheel framework lends itself to use as a planning tool, but first and foremost, it is to be used as an assessment tool, to identify what you are doing as an organization and where your sustainability ‘gaps’ may be.  It is only with a systematic and honest self-assessment that an organization can determine how and where to focus its efforts to move towards the goal of truly embedding sustainability into its organizational culture through both formal and informal means, with a view towards both fulfillment and innovation.

Just like high school sex, a more sustainable approach to your business can be a clumsy  and awkward experience but many have ventured before you and have charted the way.  Sometimes in life just showing up isn’t enough – you need to do things right to achieve the best results.

  • Stephanie Bertels

    Thanks for the great event Brad! I really enjoyed it. …just want to note that I would not advocate for two CSOs, which would be overkill, but rather having two VPs or two directors with one focused on fulfillment and one focused on innovation. Obviously, this will only be in large organizations. But smaller organizations will still need to find a way to allocate responsibility to oversee sustainability fulfillment and sustainability innovation to different people to make sure that someone is responsible for pushing these two parallel agendas forward.

  • As I said in person at the event, credit for the playful analogy goes to Ed Whittingham, who heads up the Pembina Institute. Ed has a magical way with words! 🙂

  • The high scholl sex analagy to fulfillment and innovation is intriguing, as is the portfolio approach to embedding sustainability.

    My wonder however is where some of the more complex, trickier areas of assessing sustainability and CSR overall fit in the portolio approach. By means of an example focusing on Canadian extractive industry corporations working overseas in some of the more challenging African country environments where transparency, accountability and corruption are extremely problematic, I would ask three questions: does the portfolio approach enable threshold decisions for engagement to be objectively made? Does the approach enable for credible adaptive management (innovation under this framework) to be factored in? And is the category of sustainabilityb indicator involving social impacts objectively factored in to this sustainability portfolio framework?

    http://www.ctv.ca/generic/generated/static/business/article1949364.html offers an interesting take by one Canadian medium on some of the trickier CSR aspects that have been facing Canadian corporations in recent years, and on varied viewpoints on efforts to date. I’d be interested in getting sense of how these issues feed back into the Portfolio framework. With Suncor, there probably is some excellent longitudinal data and analysis on relations with First Nations and mutual perceptions of sustainability indicators.

    • Stephanie Bertels

      It’s a good point Michael. The key is that the wheel is meant to be used to guide how you embed sustainability into culture. It’s not meant to be used as an overall framework for sustainability. Many of the questions that you pose are really about the core strategy that the company is employing and how to implement that core strategy. I agree that the questions you pose are very important to address. But the framework is about culture change, not about strategy implementation. The idea is that a company needs to develop its strategy and grapple with these issues. The framework that I provide is not designed to guide these conversations, but rather to encourage them to happen.

  • Michael Canoy

    I like the analogy. The Wheel” approach is much closer to what planners should be doing. Many people are linear thinkers and fail to realize that in the real world development of anything is cyclic. The process is never really “done” because things change. Picture Dr. Bertel’s wheel going around and each time around the whole thing shifts a little up and to the right (hopefully).
    The process is like high school sex in some of other ways too.If you never do it you drop out of the evolutionary race and go extinct, if you manage without forethought and some care you may get an unexpected result (and not know it until it’s too late), you may get what you think you want but discover painful, potentially fatal, results down the line.

    • Stephanie Bertels

      I completely agree that where we want to take things next is to look at how the wheel changes as you move up and to the right. During the next phase of our work, we are trying to sort out some of the sequencing issues in terms of what practices need to be emphasized at which stages.