von Michael v. Kutzschenbach

After over 40 years of experience with environmental issues and regulations, it is probably safe to say that most firms do at least an acceptable job of compliance with the letter of the law. Some few are leaders that go beyond that required by law, but by and large the majority are content to play a reactive role. There are many explanations for why firms take this stance in the face of the most important challenge confronting the world today.

One important issue is that sustainability is a concept that everyone can intuitively relate to but which remains notoriously difficult to define unambiguously. At a high level, sustainability is comprised of three basic elements: the natural environment, the social world, and the economic world. Traditionally (and overly simplified), firms have been primarily concerned with the economic aspects and on having access to resources from the natural world. Social aspects were generally perceived of as being covered by the firm’s ability to pay wages to their employees.

However, the nature of the environmental management challenge has changed, due in part to the success of rules and regulations governing emissions. Stakeholders’ increasing expectations regarding continual improvements in the natural environment, rising awareness of the social costs of doing business, and the shifting focus to the role that individuals as consumers play has dramatically multiplied the degree of complexity for business leaders and environmental managers.

Against this constantly changing backdrop there are requisite competencies the firms must develop in order to engage effectively with these dynamic processes. In his book, “Sustainability Science” (2013), Bert de Vries makes the point that one of the aspects of developing an understanding of sustainability is that it incorporates elements of both the hard and soft sciences and highlights the need to clarify the values upon which actions are taken. The new business environment thus places emphasis on a set of organizational skills that have been largely ignored. At the organizational level, working to improve the firm’s learning culture is an important step. This involves developing the ability for reflection, assumption and value surfacing, and critical thinking about the role of the firm in a modern society. Systems thinking is a powerful tool that can support this process.

Another factor that confounds the situation lies in the nature of the problem itself. The issue of sustainability is likely the canonical example of a “wicked problem,” first described by Rittel and Webber in their 1973 Policy Sciences Journal article, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” They identify the characteristics of wicked problems that directly challenge the idea that existing ways of thinking and acting are sufficient to respond to calls for increased sustainability. Chief among these are that there are no right or wrong solutions, only more or less good ones. Also, there are no final solutions; the firm must prepare itself for dealing with a dynamically developing and evolving process. This latter condition emphasizes the importance of having a robust and critical learning culture in place in the organization.

In developing an organizations approach to engagement, it can be useful to draw some inspiration and guidance from philosophy. In this context, Churchman’s notion of inquiring systems is relevant. In his 1971 book, “The Design of Inquiring Systems,” he identifies and characterizes five different styles of inquiry that he associates with the work of the philosophers Locke, Leibnitz, Kant, Hegel, and Singer. Each style is defined by a set of assumptions regarding where information is gathered and how it is processed. The inquiring styles can be operationalized and associated with an organization through a survey called the Inquiry Mode Questionnaire (InQ) developed by Harrison and Bramson (1982). The idea behind the InQ is that different styles of inquiry influence the manner in which the inquirer approaches the condition of concern, which usually leads to different definitions of the situation, with resultant conflicts among the stakeholders.

The inquiry style that seems best suited for engagement with sustainability is the Singerian inquiring system. This mode of inquiry captures the essence of the transdisciplinary nature of sustainability (see “Tackling Wicked Problems,” edited by Brown, Harris and Russell) for the distinction between multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinarity). In a similar vein, Nevis, DiBella and Gould (1995) have used the Organizational Learning Inventory (OLI), a questionnaire-based tool that can be used to characterize an organization’s learning culture along the two dimensions of learning orientations, which defines what and where learning takes place, and facilitating factors, that describe how learning is promoted. Although we have not come across any studies that combine inquiring systems with the organizational learning inventory, it is likely safe to assume that there are some interesting correlations between learning culture and inquiring style. One skill that is essential in the learning and engagement processes for sustainability is that of systems thinking. When this way of approaching serious organizational challenges becomes more common, firms will be in a better position to make changes that move them in the desired direction of improved sustainability performance, with full attention on potential resistance elements, unexpected consequences, and better before worse type behaviors. Using a feedback systems approach to sustainability will be the topic of the following blog articles.

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Brown, V.A., J.A. Harris and J.Y. Russell (2010). Tackling Wicked Problems Through Transdisciplinary Imagination. London: EarthScan.

Churchman, C.W. (1971). The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organization. New York: Basic Books.

Harrison, A.F. and R.M. Bramson (1982). Styles of thinking. New York: Doubleday.

Nevis, E.C., A.J. DiBella and J.M. Gould (1995). “Understanding Organizations as Learning Systems,” Sloan Management Review, Winter, Vol.36, 73-85.

Rittel, H.W.J. and M.M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” PolicySciences4, 155-169.

de Vries, B.J.M. (2013). Sustainability Science. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.