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Sustainable Systems at Work. Do They… Work?

| Friday September 4th, 2009 | 0 Comments

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At Juniata College, my undergrad alma mater, I was originally attracted to the school by a catchy slogan:  “Think.  Evolve.  Act.”  After all, that is exactly what I wanted to do in college, right?

Of course, this process isn’t restricted to academia.  It has a rightful place in business, too.  That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by the Northwest Earth Institute’s (NWEI) new version of its “Sustainable Systems at Work” curriculum.  (Well, I was impressed by the “3p exclusive teaser copy” I read…)  More below.

NWEI’s 5-week course is designed to challenge existing assumptions about how business should work and, more importantly, create conversations about doing it better.  More than 110,000 people have completed the course including participants from Starbucks and Intel.

Here are a few highlights of the course:

Create Top-Down Structures.  But Promote Bottom-Up Action.

When I hear the word “grassroots,” I’m skeptical.  I have been to enough “grassroots” meetings to know the term can sometimes mean “group of people hoping to achieve a common vision… someday.”

Mike Mercer, Executive Director of NWEI puts it this way:  “A culture of sustainability needs a coherent way to manage ideas, move them up the chain, and implement them.”

In other words, it requires both management’s structural support as well as inspired employees.  NWEI’s readings are purposely selected to crack the normal lens of “business as usual”.  As Mercer explains, “Once you see the world in a different way, it’s hard to go back.

Link Education with Social Support Networks

In most cases, we know what we should do.  We know we should exercise more and skip the cheesecake.  Then the dessert cart rolls by and… oh, I’m way too stuffed to go for that run now…

NWEI looks at sustainability the same way.  Education is an important first step, but education alone does not always lead to behavioral changes. Sometimes we need the encouragement of a friend/spouse to say, “Let’s go for a walk tonight instead of finishing this bag of chips…”

To ensure ongoing momentum after the course, NWEI has partnered with For My Innovation (FMYI), an online collaboration tool, to allow individuals to set personal goals and make affinity groups.

For example, an employee sets a goal like: “I will utilize public transportation or carpool 80% of the time.”  Each day, she can select the transportation method used that day, view her progress, and connect with others who may be looking to carpool.  A goal, measurement data, and teamwork…

Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome

I was disappointed to learn NWEI’s programs do not measure or report the financial ROI of their program outcomes.  There are plenty of management program like TQM, Six Sigma, and Lean Systems out there which can point to their financial successes.  For sustainability programs to be accepted in the larger marketplace, I think they need to do the same.

While Mercer admits NWEI is working to develop such metrics, he emphasized the overall importance of creating a mindset that gets employees to talk about important issues.

The point is to encourage the conversation:  What is happening in society?  What do you see?  What can you [collectively] do to take action?” Mercer explained.

Engaging in the process itself creates new social bonds in the workplace and discourages “autopilot” thinking.  It is about changing the conversation.  “After all,” says Mercer, “you never know when you might spark the conversation that leads to the next sustainable outcome”.


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