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Collaboration for sustainability – the business school connection
By Dr Arnold Smit, the Executive for USB-ED’s Centre for Business in Society.

In a previous opinion piece I wrote about my experience of the Rio+20 Summit.  Therein I said that “sustainability is a cross-cutting challenge for which we need innovation and collaboration based on a common vocabulary of understanding and a common strategy of response. The question is: Who will hold the convening space for such connectivity in the face of complexity? My answer is that business schools have to put up their hands in this regard.”  I promised to expand on this idea in a follow-up column.

I do not want to use too much space for arguing the dimensions of the sustainability challenge.  We know enough now about issues such as global warming and climate change; biodiversity and ecosystem deterioration; energy, food and water insecurity; mushrooming population growth and urbanisation; youth unemployment and social restlessness; and economic turmoil and stagnation.  We know these matters are real and ignoring them will only be at our own peril.  To quote Ken Wilber, denial will border on a slow and gruesome collective suicide.

While the parameters of our sustainability challenges are being investigated and reported on more and more scientifically, consensus seems to be emerging on a few aspects, namely that 
  1. since the first early warning around future sustainability risks some five decades ago the trend only intensified in the wrong direction;
  2. the issues cut across and have implications for all sectors of society and all levels of social standing; and
  3. solutions will have to be found across the boundaries of traditional disciplines and across society’s conventional lines of division and categorisation. 
In short, approaching the proverbial tipping point of an inherently unsustainable development trajectory in our known human history will demand from us to work together in ways to which we are not accustomed.  Restoring sustainability is a collaborative challenge.

Collaboration, however, is easier said than done.  In the process of bringing together different stakeholders, we discover the challenges of conflicting worldviews, value systems and approaches to change.  In a 2005 report of the World Economic Forum this challenge is well stated:  “Business tends to be slow to move up to the point that it has made its decision and then wants action and delivery instantly … NGOs tend to be incredibly keen and/or demanding and then seem to be slow to deliver … the public sector is often quick to engage, but then gets stuck in bureaucracy.” And yet for mitigating the risks of our unsustainable world and crafting a transformative pathway into the future, we need the capacities available in all three of these stakeholders.  We need the passion, empathy and sense of justice of NGOs, the entrepreneurial, technological and financial resources available in business, and the government’s ability to negotiate policy and make agreements enforceable in a democratic environment.

If we then need all three sectors to meet in the same space, and if it is indeed the case that they do not collaborate naturally, we need a facilitative and connective agency to make it possible.  This is where I see an unprecedented opportunity for business schools as inclusive cross-sector laboratories for sustainability innovation.  My reasons for this belief are based on the following considerations:
  • Stakeholder engagement has become one of the key tenets in sustainability frameworks and governance and reporting requirements. Therefore, apart from just teaching it to the managers of the future, business schools should take the opportunity to become spaces where societal stakeholder collaboration can be exercised in practice.
  • Stakeholder collaboration is in essence an exercise in societal learning and change.  For the process to be successful, such collaboration needs people with appropriate worldviews, theories of change and the facilitative capacity to offer a safe space in the context of which diverse stakeholders can develop the requisite trust to generate together bold and courageous future scenarios and strategies.  One would hope that business schools will possess the tacit knowledge and skills to make such collaboration possible.
  • Business schools were instrumental in the success of the overall economic paradigm that now seems to have reached the end of its stamina.  While it now seems as if yesterday’s teachings were not as self-evidently right as they may have appeared, the time is therefore ripe for business schools to invite society’s main stakeholders into a discourse about an alternative future, and to try to figure out the kind of economy that is appropriate for a sustainable future and the leadership competencies and organisational forms that will be instrumental in making it possible.
Peter Senge, the thought leader in systems-thinking and change, is known for his work on mental models.  He recommends that the mental model of the industrial age that “economic growth and rising GDP are the best way to lift all boats and reduce social inequalities” will have to be replaced with “in the global village there is only one boat, and a hole sinks us all.” Collaboration for sustainability is no luxury and for business schools the imperative to be the connector and facilitator should be self-evident.
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