Sustainability is a hot topic these days. Leaders tout green
initiatives. Politicians, actors, and CEOs are now ersatz
environmentalists. Perhaps your organization recently jumped on the
bandwagon, trying to focus your goals in an "eco" direction.
Suddenly you are trying to leave zero carbon footprints and
reorient your business plan to take advantage of the new demand for
environmentally friendly products. Good for you! The environmental
danger to our planet--perhaps the most important issue of our
times--and the legacy we leave our grandchildren will largely
depend upon how responsible we are about tackling it.
Still, if you are an organizational leader, you are interested in
not only how healthy the physical environment is but also in how
vigorously your company, association, or department will thrive
over time. Will it live or die? In today's highly competitive,
ever-changing environment, it's adapt or fail. And you don't want
to be on the corporate endangered species list. Organizational
sustainability includes, but is more than, adopting practices that
will make our world more environmentally viable.
Applying what we know
I recently asked human resource professionals from Idaho's Treasure
Valley what they consider organizational sustainability to be and
how human resource professionals contribute to it. I also wanted to
know what they thought were the most important ways that occurs.
They came up with three main areas related to organizational
sustainability where HR professionals seem to have the highest
Recycling resources. The results were interesting
and, I think, highly applicable for those leading organizational
development initiatives. The first area is what I will call
recycling resources. This is the process, in our field, of
developing organizational capacity through people. The three
activities here should come as no surprise: attracting the right
people; developing the right people; and retaining the right
Telic properties. The second is what I call
honoring the organization's "telic" properties. Ancient
philosophers considered all things to have teleological properties,
meaning they have a purpose. HR professionals here serve to align
the entire organization toward a common purpose. The activities
which comprise this function are: planning for the future; leading;
motivating toward organizational purposes; communication; and
aligning systems, policies, processes, and practices toward that
Adaptable systems. The third area is providing
adaptable systems. Ecological systems survive to the extent they
can adjust to changing external conditions. The same is truer today
for organizations than ever before in this globally competitive
world. New entrants, changing technology, and shifting political,
military, and economic forces demand the ability to transform.
The activities HR professionals contribute here are ensuring
adaptable processes, policies, and practices; managing change;
letting go of past practices; assuring HR resources are accessible;
and supporting generative interactions between people.
To take the metaphor further, I believe HR is a keystone species.
In an ecological system a keystone species has a larger effect on
the environment than its numbers would suggest. That's us, isn't
it? If we are doing our jobs right, we are at the intersection of
everything important going on in the organization, and the number
of us typically doing it is very small relative to our impact.
The principles of organizational sustainability
If you want your organization to survive and thrive over the long
haul, pay attention. Healthy organizations of the future will
exhibit the following traits, and training and development
professionals play an integral role in every one of them.
Be expert at learning to learn. It won't be enough
in the future to learn or to learn fast. Sustainable organizations
will be highly skilled at learning how to learn when new situations
confront them, often by transferring prior skills and applying them
to new situations. That will be a key to their adaptability.
Have vigorous feedback systems. Successful
organizations will have sensitive antenna out and will be very
perceptive of both the changing external environment and the
internal vitality of the organization. That's how they'll
anticipate problems before their competitors and solve problems
before they become, well, problems.
Be generative. Recycling human and other resources
involves creating new opportunities and applications, seeing
potential that others will miss, and continuing to build
organizational capacity. It's a downward death spiral for those who
allow a toxic physical or emotional environment to prevail.
Diversify. Variation protects against the
possibility of being wiped out through a single vulnerability. Not
only will diverse environments engender rich, multi-perspective
thinking in organizations but they will be more likely to produce
the wealth of competencies needed to survive against competitors in
rapidly mutating industries.
I am not a biologist or ecologist, nor do I have any particular
expertise in environmental science. But I do know this - if you
want your organization to be around 20 years, seven years, or even
next year, you'd better pin your hopes on sustainability principles
We are in the middle of an organizational climate change of our
own. Some of your resources are going to be drying up before you
know it, predators are on the loose trying to snap up what will be
left, and the competition can see you sweat. It's global warming of
an organizational kind. Are you prepared to stand the heat?