By Cathy and David DuBois, SIOP Bloggers
Welcome to the SIOP Sustainability Blog! We are delighted to host this forum for SIOP members who are interested in I-O-related sustainability issues, focused on both research and practice. We plan to use a variety of formats through the coming year to engage members in a productive exchange; we have a boatload of things to push at you, but we also want to pull from you in equal measure. So let’s get the conversation going!
In this inaugural blog we begin by addressing whether sustainability is a fad—a green patina to freshen old concepts and practices; a legitimate, but narrow research topic, requiring only a handful of scholars and practitioners; or a substantive paradigm which can shed new light on I-O. While sustainability reflects the emotional fervor of a passing fad and shows signs of becoming a burgeoning set of research streams, we propose that it is more accurately a paradigm—a framework or perspective for interpreting, evaluating, and shaping behavior in real world contexts. Sustainability concerns the ways in which the contexts of organizational and individual behavior have dramatically changed in the past couple of decades. Chris Laszlo and Nadia Zhexembayeva* frame these changes to the business environment as: (1) radical transparency, due to the rapid increase of nonprofit organizations and engaged citizens; (2) rising consumer expectations, who express preferences for products, services, and companies, that deliver both personal and environmental value; and (3) resource limitations (e.g., oil, water, copper, steel, etc.), that drive prices and availability of critical business resources. We also add eco-system disruptions, such as the dozen 2011 natural disasters in the US that killed 646 people and cost $52 billion (exceeding the number and cost of disasters for the entire 1980’s decade, even adjusting for inflation.)
Changes to natural and business environments are deep, broad, and enduring, as are their impacts on firms and people. Consequently, these impacts will affect behavior, decisions, and functions throughout organizations—especially leadership, strategy, culture, organizational design and development, as well as all traditional aspects of HR. The sustainability paradigm is driven by fundamental changes to the natural ecology in which we live and work, as well as by an array of social changes around the globe. The impacts of this paradigm shift will be ubiquitous and consequential. The late Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of Interface, Inc., noted that industry is largely responsible for the ecological disruptions we’re now experiencing, and that paradoxically, it is the only sector with sufficient size and capacity to mitigate them.
We frequently puzzle over the laissez-faire attitude of our colleagues about the challenges posed by ecological disruptions of climate change, peak oil, environmental toxins, declines in biodiversity, and so forth. We hope you enlighten us. More to the point, we hope this blog can serve as a forum and useful entry point to engaging the broad spectrum of interests within SIOP. We believe SIOP can play a pivotal role in addressing these organizational and societal challenges, as it is the fulcrum between social science and business.
The focus of national and world sustainability efforts to date has been on technology—solar and wind technology, biofuels, advanced batteries, and the like. While remarkable technological advances have been made, society has not adopted them in any meaningful way. Hence, recently we find growing recognition of the importance and relevance of social sciences in providing more complete solutions, ones that can be effectively and widely deployed. For example, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently released a report jointly sponsored by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation entitled, Beyond Technology: Strengthening Energy Policy through Social Science. We recommend you take a look. It makes the case for the role of social science, outlines some basic strategies for engaging the social science communities, and provides a fabulous list of current references. In our recent discussions with DOE and NSF representatives, both have emphasized the priority now being given to social science research focused on sustainability. (Researchers take note!) NSF further noted their multidisciplinary emphasis, to the extent that most sustainability-related grants now are considered nonresponsive unless they include a behavioral component that is fully integrated into the proposal.
We’d love to hear from you. To get things going, we ask that you weigh in with a couple of sentences about what the conversation on sustainability is like in your organization—nonexistent, bolt-on projects, embedded sustainability at the core of the mission, vision, and business model? Let us know!
*For additional reading on embedding sustainability we suggest adding the following book to your holiday list: Embedded Sustainability: The Next Big Competitive Advantage, by Chris Laszlo, C. & Nadia Zhexembayeva (2011; Greenleaf Publishing: Sheffield, UK.)