Sustainability definitions

Four things on the same day last week converged on sustainability issues:

• I listened to a podcast The HR Function of the Future given by John Boudreau, Center for Effective Organizations, USC in which one of the questions he asked was "Will HR Connect Values and Culture to Sustainable Strategic Success?"
• Someone sent me some information about SAP's new HQ building that has just received LEED Platinum status.
• I was invited to join a community group "to share ideas and efforts related to sustainable workplace strategies".
• One of the students that I mentor decided last week to focus his dissertation research efforts on service innovations in the utilities sector – specifically related to sustainability.

So what did I learn from these four different slants on sustainability? First I learned that the term 'sustainability' was no being used in the same way, with the same definition, in each of the four instances. That confirmed my opinion that it's a word that is used very loosely. People have very different takes on it and usually do not take the time to clarify what they mean by it.

John Boudreau equates it with market position. One of the questions that he discussed in the webinar was "Will HR Connect Values and Culture to Sustainable Strategic Success?" In this defined sustainable strategic success as "How we intend to compete and defend" and in his book Beyond HR presents some diagnostic questions on this: "What assumptions will be critical to our strategy? What unique competitive position do we want to achieve? What will make our advantages difficult to duplicate?"

SAP seems to be using 'sustainability' as development and growth, as Bill McDermott, co-CEO of SAP AG explains "When we laid the foundation for the new SAP building in Pennsylvania, our goal was to create an inspirational work place for our Philadelphia-area employees and show our commitment to sustainable development and growth in North America"

The workplace strategy community group does not specify what it means by 'sustainable workplace strategies' but it seems to be around a workplace that promotes healthy, high-performance environments, using environmentally responsible materials, methods and principles thereby improving occupant health and performance, maximizing human capital investment, and creating a more efficient organization.

The researcher defines sustainability as "all activities and actions of an organization that are designed to create value for itself and society, refrain from overly consuming and negatively impacting natural resources, and enhance the life of people and their communities (World Business Council for Sustainable Development, 2002)."

Second, I learned that I still prefer the Brundtland definition of sustainability – or rather sustainable development:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
• the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
• the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

Third, I learned that one of my challenges as an organization designer is to work with designing 'sustainability' into the fabric of an organization. If it means different things to different stakeholder groups where does one start in the design process? Thinking about this I remembered another thing I'd just read – a piece called Surrender Matters. Briefly, it's about about giving up on a strategy in order to collaborate on the values underpinning it. Following this argument sustainability becomes about organizational and individual values not about strategies. The author of Surrender Matters makes the point that

Strategies are always expendable and getting overly attached to any one strategy is dangerous. .. That's why great leaders defer the conversation about strategies until everyone has had a chance to fully express and appreciate the conversation about values. What matters most here? What are we trying to accomplish? Who are we trying to serve? What needs are we trying to meet? However we frame the question, there is a clear difference between ends and means.

Thinking of organizational sustainability in terms of those sorts of questions could serve to iron out the disparate views on what it 'means' and lead to an organization design that is sustainable in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the future.