Improve Your Sustainability Programs Through Organizational Learning

How can sustainability knowledge be diffused among colleagues and employees? A number of factors facilitate organizational learning, and the results of the learning processes. By examining six business cases, the authors find that both internal factors and external factors influence learning. Internal factors include ideas that promote learning, leadership styles, how information is communicated internally and the presence of change agents. External factors included stakeholder pressure and government regulation.

Background In managing sustainability activities, managers typically focus on improving performance or redesigning strategies. They often neglect the importance and role of learning in implementing changes. Organizational learning is key to embedding sustainability in companies, yet the research in this area is sparse. As companies increasingly engage in sustainable business practices, the importance of understanding how to continuously learn about sustainability—and spread this learning across the business—becomes critical.

Findings

  • Continuous learning is necessary to implement sustainability, but the learning processes at work may depend on the individual business. Examples of processes include: integrating short-term goals into existing processes, formalizing communication, forming working groups or publishing guidelines.

  • A participatory leadership style motivates employees and encourages the flow of information and knowledge. This style fosters sustainability learning more than consultative or directive leadership.

  • Internal communication platforms such as project-oriented work, conferences and virtual communities allow for better exchange of knowledge. This in turn enables greater learning.

  • External factors, such as stakeholder pressures, are more effective in changing large companies than small ones. Policy measures, such as regulations for product stewardship, are one way to create this pressure.

Implications for Managers

  • Identify and leverage change agents, and draw on elements of a participatory leadership style to help increase sustainability learning.

  • Leverage external drivers such as regulations or mandatory reporting schemes to motivate learning processes. This may ultimately help prevent loss of reputation with the public.

  • Provide training and educational opportunities to ensure your employees can handle the challenges of implementing sustainability.

Implications for Researchers

Future research can examine how the demand for sustainable products can be increased to create an impetus for ongoing organizational learning in the context of sustainability. Researchers may also examine how structures for sustainability-related learning relate to sustainability and corporate principles in general.

Methods

This paper analyzes six business cases of medium and large-sized companies relating to their sustainability objectives by conducting group interviews and follow-up surveys. The authors interpreted their results using a conceptual framework of sustainable learning processes.

Siebenhüner, Bernd. & Arnold, Marlen. (2007). Organizational learning to manage sustainable development.Business Strategy and the Environment. 16, 339-353.

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