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Crafting Organizations as Sustainable Human Systems

Saybrook University | Monday July 26th, 2010 | 0 Comments

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

by Chuck Piazza

As can be seen by the current economic crisis and issues regarding global warming, leading organizations in the 21st century is very challenging and requires new approaches.

Leading a sustainable organization involves stretching the organization to re-envision how it uses its resources, not only natural resources, but its workforce and business partnerships.

Cruising the Internet, one can easily see how major organizations are responding to the call to be sustainable, to be more green and thus decrease their “carbon footprint.” Just check out their Corporate Social Responsibility section on their websites. While for some it is just PR, for others like Herman Miller, REI, Novo Nordisk, Patagonia, Timberland, Adobe Systems, Inc., Cisco Systems, and Google, Inc., it is a genuine attempt to transform business practices by “greening” their daily operations and travel practices. SustainableBusiness.com annually publishes a list of 20 of the world’s leading sustainable business stocks.

While green operations are central to an organization’s sustainability, there is more. As Alexander Laszlo pointed out in last week’s article, sustainability entails sustainable stewardship, “the responsible caretaking and creative cultivation of resources — social, cultural, financial, and natural — to generate stakeholder value while contributing to the well-being of current and future generations of all beings.”

Talented people and collaborative partnerships are essential resources for today’s organizations. Critical, then, is leading organizations from a vantage point of stewardship and justice.

From a systems approach, sustainability is woven into the fabric of the entire organization, thus touching many aspects of the organization and its critical human systems—its people and its social networks. It influences the nature of an organization’s spirit, its structure, its culture, its management practices, its human resources, it communication systems, and its political environment. A sustainable organization should consider how people are valued, treated, and developed. It is concerned with being conscious of how business partnerships and inter-organizational work relationships are conducted.

For me there are 6 key elements of a “holistic” understanding of sustainability when applied to organizations.

These elements are:

  1. Being a viable organization. Whether an organization is for-profit, nonprofit or a public institution, for it to be successful it must function in an effective and efficient manner. Sustainable strategic management practices are vital to an organization achieving its mission and operating in a cost-effective and responsible manner.
  2. Creating life enhancing and meaningful work for employees. Sustainable organizational cultures respect and value people, appreciate their diversity, and unleash their creativity. Leaders and managers engage them, empowering them to be committed, passionate workers who make meaningful contributions to the organization, and serve both customers and the community in which they live. Human resource management philosophies that flow from such organizational cultures promote work-life balance, envisioning workers as people with relationships and lives outside work.
  3. Not exploiting business partners, vendors, suppliers, customers and clients. The contemporary organization is a dynamic, evolving, interactive web of networks. Sustainable supply chain operations strive for the mutual benefit and gain of all parties involved in an organization’s network, as well as the sustainable development and use of products and services.
  4. Fostering a responsible, prudent, and re-generative use of natural resources and the global environment. Sustainable organizational leaders craft operational processes and develop a product life cycle that has as minimal of an impact upon the environment as possible. The organization is developed in a manner so it is part of the natural ecosystem.
  5. Partnering with and giving back to the community—local, national, and world. Sustainable organizations strive to create prosperity for, as well as to serve, all of its stakeholders, including the local community in which it operates and the larger global community that forms its markets. They create an opportunity for people to flourish.
  6. Creating a viable and healthy world and future for up-coming generations. Sustainable organizations are aware of and concerned about the consequences of their decisions and actions. Their leaders feel a responsibility not only for today’s workers and communities, but also those of the future. Integral to the organization’s legacy is the quality of society and work-life they create for the present and future generations.

In light of these principles, leaders who hold sustainable principles are challenged to not only create green learning organizations, but to design organizations that have healthy work environments and internal systems, and to establish non exploitive working relationships with external partners—be they other organizations, individuals or civic communities.

Chuck Piazza, PhD is a professor in the Organizational Systems Programs at Saybrook University, and a social philosopher who is concerned with developing socially responsible organizations and sustainable information systems.


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