Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture

The Network for Business Sustainability will soon release its new research report, Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture: A How-To Guide for Executives.

NBS gave me a sneak preview of the Executive Summary of the report, and invited me to review it.

Overview of the Report

From a comprehensive review of academic research on sustainability and organizational culture (as well as studies dealing with other types of organizational culture change, such as safety and innovation), NBS’ research team identified a broad portfolio of practices for embedding sustainability.  Some of these practices have been shown, through research, to be effective, while others show potential but remain untested – at least, in an academic sense.

The researchers then grouped the practices into four different themes: fostering commitment; clarifying expectations; building momentum for change; and instilling capacity for change. These four themes together comprise the four quadrants of a new framework designed to help executives, senior HR managers, and senior sustainability managers to embed sustainability into their organizations:

Network for Business Sustainability's Portfolio Framework for Embedding Sustainability

The quadrants are constructed around axes ranging from formal to informal practices and from fulfillment (delivering on current sustainability practices) to innovation (moving the organization further along the path to sustainability).

Each theme or quadrant comprises a suite of practice categories (shown above), each of which includes individual practices.  In the full report, which I haven’t yet seen, each practice is described in more detail and accompanied by specific examples.  In the Executive Summary, the suite of practices for each quadrant is summarized in a table, with “supported” practices – that is, those shown by academic research to be effective – distinguished from “potential” practices.

The “portfolio approach” supported by this framework is intended to emphasize balance. Users are advised to select appropriate practices from each of the four quadrants.  Moreover, the guide recommends reliance on the “supported” practices in each quadrant, and regular monitoring and evaluation to confirm the effectiveness of “potential” practices that may be used.

The Executive Summary also includes four case studies (of Tembec, Teck, Canadian Pacific Railway, and Suncor, each members of NBS’ Leadership Council), each of which provides a snapshot of sustainability initiatives at the company, and a graphic summary of the practice categories employed by the company.

Finally, the Executive Summary provides a Portfolio Assessment Tool to assist users in conducting an evaluation of practices that are already in use and/or that could be used to embed sustainability in the organization.  The tool comprises the framework shown above with the individual practices, both “supported” and “potential’ listed around the outside.  The Executive Summary is sparse on guidance on how to use the tool; I expect this is covered in greater detail in the full report.

First Impressions

On the plus side:

It’s comprehensive.  The researchers have compiled a broad suite of practices and explained what those might look like in the workplace.  The case studies show how a number of different but complementary practices can advance a single sustainability initiative.  Both of these approaches will increase understanding by prospective users.

It’s broadly applicable.  Any user should be able to find some practices in here that will suit their organization, no matter the sector, the size, or the experience.

It’s simple.  Whatever your feelings about quadrant models, the framework is clear and easy to understand.  The quadrants, practice categories, and individual practices are presented in step-wise detail, facilitating understanding – and importantly, implementation – by even a sustainability novice.

On the other hand:

It’s academic.  Okay, they’re right up front about this, and the NBS is, primarily, a research organization.  However, the reliance on academic research to differentiate between “supported” and “potential” practices means that an awful lot of important change management techniques and embedding practices are lumped into the “potential” category when practical experience might suggest they are, in fact, essential.  Educate.  Commit.  Set goals.  Integrate (into mission, vision, strategy, business plan, business processes, systems). Develop metrics.  Monitor.  Report.  These actions are all identified as “potential” practices. To be fair, the report suggests users try such practices.  Of course, this is an area where – again, acknowledged in the report – practice often leads theory.  Nevertheless, I worry that the emphasis placed on the absence of testing of the effectiveness of these practices might actually discourage their deployment by executives and other sustainability practitioners.

It would be nice to see this content complemented by a survey of experienced practitioners who could comment on the effectiveness – at least within their respective organizations – of each of these practices deployed individually and as part of an integration strategy.  Now there’s a project for the sustainability-minded grad student…

The Bottom Line?

Notwithstanding, whether you are an experienced consulting practitioner, a sustainability champion, or a leader who is trying to embed sustainability into their organization, this report will be a valuable tool.

I look forward to exploring the full report when it is released, which I understand will be tomorrow (Monday, December 13th).  To register to receive a copy of the report from NBS, click here.

Thanks to NBS for the invitation to preview the Executive Summary.  By way of disclosure, I did not receive any payment or other material benefit for conducting this review.  I am, however, a member of the Network for Business Sustainability.

  1. Here’s the full version of the report, Celesa. It was produced by reviewing 13,000 academic and industry sources on sustainability and corporate culure.

    Click to access Systematic-Review-Sustainability-and-Corporate-Culture.pdf

    Take care!

    (NBS Communications Manager)

  2. NBS’ lead researcher,Dr. Stephanie Bertels, responded to my review of this new tool here:

    I understand they will be conducting a series of researcher-led practitioner-focused roundtables in coming months to get the practitioner’s view of these practices in action. I look forward to the continuing dialogue!

    If you’ve had a chance to review the new report, share your thoughts with us!

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