Social Impact Innovation Policy Mar 4, 2013

The Hid­den Dri­vers of Cor­po­rate Sus­tain­abil­i­ty Initiatives

Under­stand­ing the impact of every­day inter­ac­tions can help ral­ly sup­port for initiatives.

In a 2010 sur­vey of CEOs of glob­al cor­po­ra­tions includ­ing HSBC, Novar­tis, Pep­si­Co, and Tim­ber­land, over 93 per­cent of respon­dents said that sus­tain­abil­i­ty issues — as relat­ed to the envi­ron­ment and oth­er areas — were cru­cial to the suc­cess of their business. 

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Com­pa­nies across sec­tors are active­ly pur­su­ing sus­tain­abil­i­ty, from devel­op­ing eco-friend­ly prod­ucts to pro­mot­ing job train­ing for low-income pop­u­la­tions, in search of oper­a­tional and rep­u­ta­tion­al val­ue. As such, set­ting an effec­tive sus­tain­abil­i­ty agen­da is para­mount. But sus­tain­abil­i­ty is such a broad man­date that no com­pa­ny can pur­sue all pos­si­ble aspects, and most firms lack divi­sions or busi­ness units ded­i­cat­ed to sus­tain­abil­i­ty efforts. One impor­tant ques­tion, then, is why some sus­tain­abil­i­ty issues receive more orga­ni­za­tion­al resources than oth­ers. More­over, what fac­tors will pro­mote or impede suc­cess in exe­cut­ing on a giv­en issue?

Recent pri­ma­ry research I con­duct­ed with Sara Soder­strom sug­gests that the answers to these ques­tions go well beyond top exec­u­tives’ deci­sions, to orga­ni­za­tion-wide efforts to build sup­port and cre­ate momen­tum around spe­cif­ic sus­tain­abil­i­ty issues. As in social move­ments out­side orga­ni­za­tions, issue entre­pre­neurs raise the pro­file of spe­cif­ic issues, mobi­lize col­leagues to ded­i­cate resources to these, and form coali­tions. In a cor­po­rate set­ting, under­stand­ing how these intrapre­neurs” (an inno­va­tion-research term for indi­vid­u­als who use entre­pre­neur­ial tac­tics to dri­ve change) pro­mote spe­cif­ic issues through small-scale inter­ac­tions can help man­agers under­stand how agen­das with­in and out­side sus­tain­abil­i­ty are formed and exe­cut­ed, along with routes to improv­ing the impact of agendas.

Sus­tain­abil­i­ty at Alpha, Inc.

To under­stand the dri­vers of cor­po­rate sus­tain­abil­i­ty agen­das we col­lect­ed data over 18 months from for­mal and infor­mal inter­views, meet­ings, and inter­nal doc­u­ments at Alpha, Inc.,” a US-based glob­al med­ical device firm. In 2007 Alpha sought a more strate­gic approach to sus­tain­abil­i­ty and launched an exec­u­tive-lev­el steer­ing com­mit­tee to set and act on pri­or­i­ty areas. Eight streams of sus­tain­abil­i­ty-relat­ed issues were con­sid­ered, from green­ing the sup­ply chain to com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment. Fund­ing did not influ­ence a giv­en issue’s attrac­tive­ness, as none of the issues had pri­or or planned fund­ing, and all were asso­ci­at­ed with pos­i­tive busi­ness cases.

Over the next two years, only a sub­set of the issues gained and main­tained inter­nal resources (i.e.,such as time, man­pow­er, fund­ing), becom­ing part of Alpha’s sus­tain­abil­i­ty agen­da. For exam­ple, the issue of green­ing the sup­ply chain — through a mul­ti-pronged effort to decrease Alpha’s envi­ron­men­tal foot­print — rose to become a for­mal pri­or­i­ty for the steer­ing com­mit­tee, with incor­po­ra­tion of sus­tain­abil­i­ty into all sup­pli­er con­tracts and requests for pro­pos­al. Sim­i­lar­ly, an ini­tia­tive to devel­op busi­ness-mod­el inno­va­tions for bot­tom-of-the-pyra­mid com­mu­ni­ties gained momen­tum after a year of lim­it­ed activ­i­ty, gain­ing a ded­i­cat­ed cross-divi­sion­al work­ing group and an approved bud­get. In con­trast, the issues of devel­op­ing green prod­ucts and prof­itably pro­vid­ing waste streams to part­ner cor­po­ra­tions nev­er caught on, despite ini­tial inter­est and momentum.

Sus­tain­abil­i­ty and oth­er cor­po­rate agen­das are core com­po­nents of ongo­ing busi­ness success. 

While exec­u­tives can influ­ence agen­das, they can­not deter­mine their evo­lu­tion. The tra­jec­to­ries and out­comes of agen­da issues under con­sid­er­a­tion depend large­ly on issue intrapre­neurs and their every­day work­place inter­ac­tions. These are the hid­den dri­vers of sus­tain­abil­i­ty agen­das, and they typ­i­cal­ly work from the bot­tom of the orga­ni­za­tion up.

The Hid­den Dri­vers at Work

Suc­cess­ful small-scale inter­ac­tions — from hall­way con­ver­sa­tions to struc­tured meet­ings — moti­vate par­tic­i­pants to align their inter­est and atten­tion around sim­i­lar issues and devote ener­gy to these issues. Unsuc­cess­ful inter­ac­tions divide atten­tion and dimin­ish ener­gy. Both types of inter­ac­tions beget sim­i­lar future inter­ac­tions. At Alpha, a suc­cess­ful inter­ac­tion around the bot­tom-of-the-pyra­mid sus­tain­abil­i­ty issue took place at a cross-busi­ness-unit work­shop: three intrapre­neurs used sub­tle shifts in focus to help more skep­ti­cal par­tic­i­pants under­stand the initiative’s low cap­i­tal invest­ment require­ment, emo­tion­al appeal, and like­ly sup­port from top man­age­ment. The work­shop stim­u­lat­ed syn­chronic­i­ty around the issue, yield­ing shared focus and enthu­si­asm. A meet­ing over a pro­posed new-prod­uct-mate­ri­als data­base pro­vid­ed a counter-exam­ple. Here, the would-be intrapre­neur and oth­er par­tic­i­pants failed to align their foci of atten­tion and emo­tion­al tone, leav­ing all par­ties feel­ing disconnected.

Klaus Weber dis­cuss­es how social inter­ac­tions dri­ve sus­tain­abil­i­ty ini­tia­tives View all CSR videos on YouTube

We found that repeat­ed suc­cess­ful inter­ac­tions boost sus­tain­abil­i­ty issues through three inter­re­lat­ed mechanisms:

  • Moti­va­tion and sup­port: Suc­cess­ful inter­ac­tions pro­vide moti­va­tion for intrapre­neurs, reduc­ing their frus­tra­tion and fuel­ing them to take on more-chal­leng­ing and high­er-stakes inter­ac­tions. This is impor­tant because sus­tain­abil­i­ty ini­tia­tives require work­ing out­side estab­lished orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures and processes.
  • Mobi­liza­tion: Pos­i­tive inter­ac­tions mobi­lize oth­ers in the com­pa­ny to devote ener­gy to spe­cif­ic issues, with many emerg­ing as new intrapre­neurs. Suc­ces­sive inter­ac­tions pro­mote a sense of ongo­ing engage­ment, shared under­stand­ing of the issue, and sol­i­dar­i­ty. Such mobi­liza­tion is impor­tant because sus­tain­abil­i­ty ini­tia­tives require col­lab­o­ra­tion across func­tions and units.
  • Access to deci­sion-mak­ing process­es: Suc­cess­ful inter­ac­tions dri­ve access to key deci­sion mak­ers, along with secur­ing their atten­tion and sup­port. These resources, in turn, yield intrapre­neur access to impor­tant process­es such as resource-allo­ca­tion meet­ings. This is impor­tant because sus­tain­abil­i­ty ini­tia­tives gen­er­al­ly are not aligned with the business’s line orga­ni­za­tion and report­ing structure.

Har­ness­ing Hid­den Dri­vers for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty and Beyond

Issue intrapre­neurs need not focus on sus­tain­abil­i­ty alone. The hid­den dri­vers fea­tured here may be used to pro­mote issues in any areas that have not been for­mal­ized in orga­ni­za­tion­al sys­tems and hier­ar­chies — tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion and growth ini­tia­tives, for exam­ple. Across areas, a sys­tem­at­ic intrapre­neur­ial (ver­sus a top-down) approach promis­es to tap more effec­tive­ly into employ­ees’ pas­sion and knowl­edge. Fol­low­ing sev­er­al guide­lines at the intrapre­neur and orga­ni­za­tion­al lev­el can help dri­ve more suc­cess­ful issue-relat­ed interactions.

At the intrapre­neur level:

  • Culti­vate a net­work of like­mind­ed col­leagues to enhance the odds of suc­ces­sive pos­i­tive inter­ac­tions and help main­tain emo­tion­al energy.
  • Learn how to pro­mote pos­i­tive inter­ac­tions to mobi­lize oth­ers and ingrain issue-relat­ed activ­i­ties with­in the organization.
  • Devel­op knowl­edge and skills relat­ed to the organization’s polit­i­cal and social envi­ron­ment, to iden­ti­fy com­mon ground for pos­i­tive inter­ac­tions and turn around neg­a­tive interactions.

At the orga­ni­za­tion­al level:

  • Cre­ate com­mu­ni­ties around pri­or­i­ty areas like sus­tain­abil­i­ty, includ­ing local task forces that can iden­ti­fy and act on spe­cif­ic issues.
  • Cre­ate a com­mu­ni­ca­tion infra­struc­ture to avoid geo­graph­ic iso­la­tion of influ­en­tial intrapreneurs.
  • Devel­op sys­tem­at­ic process­es to har­ness infor­mal ini­tia­tives in a more struc­tured way, yield­ing a repeat­able means of pro­mot­ing issues more eas­i­ly from the bot­tom up.

Sus­tain­abil­i­ty and oth­er cor­po­rate agen­das are core com­po­nents of ongo­ing busi­ness suc­cess. Under­stand­ing and influ­enc­ing the pat­tern of every­day inter­ac­tions, or hid­den dri­vers, of agen­da issues will help indi­vid­u­als at all orga­ni­za­tion­al lev­els mobi­lize sup­port for ini­tia­tives that can yield val­ue for their com­pa­ny and community.

Featured Faculty

Klaus Weber

Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

This article is based on research conducted jointly with Sara Soderstrom as part of her PhD dissertation at the Kellogg School of Management.

About the Research

Soderstrom, Sara B. and Klaus Weber. 2011.  “Corporate Sustainability Agendas from the Bottom Up.” European Business Review (March/April): 6–9.

Read the original

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