After NBS issued a statement on the Ukraine War, stakeholders weighed in. Director Jury Gualandris shares lessons about crisis response. 

When the Ukraine War began in February, civil society demanded that organizations respond. Jury Gualandris heard that call.  

Gualandris is a professor at Ivey Business School, and he is accustomed to reacting to situations with the tools of academic research. When academics face a problem, they head to the (virtual) library.  

“When you are an academic, you work on a slow-moving context,” Gualandris explains. “You have time to focus your attention on any given empirical or theoretical problem. Time to go through and review the literature and understand what’s known and not known. You have time to think about a precise framing of the research questions that you would like to pursue.” 

Since September 2021, however, Gualandris has also been Director of the Network for Business Sustainability – an international non-profit. As an organizational leader, he faced different expectations, opportunities, and limitations than he does as a professor. 

Several days after the Ukraine War began, Gualandris heard from NBS stakeholders. Several asked for the organization to take action: specifically, to issue a statement condemning the war.  

Here’s how Gualandris responded, and what he learned along the way. His key take-homes: Action can be a way to understand a complex system, and should spring from an organization’s values or purpose.  

Taking Action in Response to War in Ukraine 

Motivated by the calls for action, Gualandris began drafting a statement: “NBS Stands Against War.” He consulted with Tima Bansal, NBS’s founder and senior advisor, and Maya Fischhoff, NBS knowledge manager. None was expert in geopolitics; they drew on their reading and ad hoc conversations.  

The NBS statement, issued March 4, condemned the war and called for suspending ties with Russian institutions (but not with individuals). It read, in part: The goal is for pressure within Russia to force a change in government policy. (See bottom of article for full text.) 

NBS staff shared the statement on social media and also, directly, with the NBS Sustainability Centres Community (SCC). NBS facilitates this group of nearly 200 business school sustainability centres as they engage in practical and intellectual conversations around business sustainability.  

The response to the statement, especially from SCC members, was vigorous, diverse, and thoughtful. Over the SCC email list-serv, people shared knowledge and experiences related to Ukraine and other wars.  

Their comments included: (1) recommendations for action (by academics, businesses, and other organizations), (2) historical context on the war, (3) criticism of varying international responses to different conflicts, and (4) questions about NBS’s authority to issue statements that might seem to come from the SCC.  

NBS organized a webinar to create a safe space to connect and explore these issues in more depth; 50 SCC members participated. 

NBS Modifies Actions 

Learning from these insights, Gualandris and his staff acted again. 

They drafted a revised statement that emphasized connection rather than suspending institutional ties. The new statement, reviewed by the SCC Advisory Board, read:  

Consistent with our mission, NBS will mobilize knowledge around the role of academia and business in war and other forms of oppression. We will also share information that enables actions to support those suffering. We will do all this through continuous engagement with our Sustainability Centres Community, business communities, and other stakeholders.  

In addition, NBS staff build our resources on the conflict: compiling a list of Ukraine-specific actions  and commissioning relevant articles (e.g. on the role of business in the Ukraine War and in conflict more generally.)  

2 Lessons on How to Respond to Crises

Gualandris draws two lessons from NBS’s journey. First: Don’t be afraid to use action to explore a complex environment. Second, base that action in your organization’s core purpose.  

1. Use Action to Gain Insight

The Ukraine War, like other crises, is a complex situation or system. Multiple actors have multi-layered relationships. Actors (and observers) see things differently and sometimes incorrectly. Information may be unavailable and prediction difficult.  

In such a situation, taking action can be a way to make sense of what’s going on. In this case, action provided useful information on how to influence the situation, even if just marginally.  

“I‘m glad we went out with the initial statement because we learned so much and we caused many more connections and discussions to develop within the SCC,” Gualandris says. “The initial statement created reactions in our close community that informed our subsequent actions. 

Businesses and other organizations can use this action-oriented approach. “Research shows [1] that the most proactive organizations or leaders use action as a way to understand the system they’re part of,” says Gualandris. These leaders tend to act more meaningfully, with higher strategic flexibility. 

A complex situation can be thought of as a dark room. If you are entering a room that is dark, you have to act. Be cautious and attentive – but move! Otherwise, nothing will become clearer.  

2. Link Action to Purpose

When Gualandris and colleagues drafted the initial NBS statement, they didn’t reflect on NBS’s specific purpose or role.  

NBS’s core mission is knowledge sharing to build a fairer and ecologically sound future. Action on any issue should relate to that focus.  

Reflecting now, Gualandris says: “Probably the best way for us to contribute is to enable knowledge sharing at a moment where it’s very difficult to have tough conversations around the subject. I think our role is to help capturing all the learning outcomes, so that we can create a sort of a collective understanding of this complex system.” 

NBS Founder Tima Bansal drew a similar conclusion, writing in Forbes about how companies should use purpose to anchor their responses to the Ukraine war. “I learned that it’s important to act fast, reinforce the purpose, and yet be willing to learn and revise,” says Bansal.  

How Academics Can Inform Organizational Responses 

As an organizational leader, Gualandris pivoted quickly. But in his academic role, he still sees the value of slow and steady research. 

“In this situation, I learned from colleagues who have studied and reflected on these issues for many years,” he says. “Their insights were key in revising our organizational response.”  

That synergy provides one more reason to bridge research and practice, as we work toward a sustainable world.  

Ultimately, the lines between roles can be more fluid than they sometimes seem. As Gualandris looks across his professional networks, he sees people working to help victims of the Ukraine War in a host of practical ways, from arranging student sponsorships to raising funds.  

“We all want to light a candle in the darkness,” says Jury. “By working together, we can learn how to do this more effectively.”

 

Appendix: Two NBS Statements on War 

March 21 NBS Statement on Ukraine War 

War is contradictory to the principles of sustainable development and community building, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is heartbreaking. NBS stands with victims of these terrible events.  

Consistent with our mission, NBS will mobilize knowledge around the role of academia and business in war and other forms of oppression. We will also share information that enables actions to support those suffering. We will do all this through continuous engagement with our Sustainability Centres Community, business communities, and other stakeholders.   

 We believe it’s important to speak up and to engage in reflection and positive action. We hope that our actions will be part of the path to peace, now and in the future, for this war and in other violent conflicts. 

March 4 NBS Statement on Ukraine War 

War is contradictory to the principles of sustainable development and community building, and Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is a heartbreaking tragedy. As Russian scientists wrote in an open letter: “This fatal step leads to huge human losses and undermines the foundations of the established system of international security.” 

Isolating and pressuring Russia is seen as the most effective way to end this conflict. As a result, NBS joins others in the international research community in suspending ties with Russian institutions. The goal is for pressure within Russia to force a change in government policy. We hope that our actions will be part of the path to peace. 

NBS will continue to monitor the situation and will support those Russian institutions and scientists that unequivocally distance themselves from the Russian government’s attack on Ukraine. 

Find Out More

[1] Interested in research on how to use action to make sense of complex situations? Jury Gualandris provides this summary:  

“In proactive organizations, extensive time and resources are not expended in efforts to understand environmental events prior to undertaking an action. That’s because action is viewed as influencing the environment, rather than being determined by it. 

“Organizational action is used as a sensemaking device. Action is undertaken and the results are used as the basis for assessing the need for additional or different actions.

“Research underlying this approach includes Daft and Weick, 1984 and Nadkarni and Barr, 2008, and Kiss and Barr, 2015.” 

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  • Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. Maya develops and oversees NBS’s knowledge products, and is obsessed with communicating complex things in clear terms (when possible).

  • Jury Gualandris is an Associate Professor of Operations Management and Sustainability at Ivey Business School and the Director of the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS). Jury’s academic work focuses on sustainability and competitiveness in supply chains. Under Jury, NBS will also focus more on building communities, so that people have a peer network to support them in creating change.

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