Sustainability Innovators — a new set of business competencies?

In my quest to learn as much as possible about the business school culture I have added the Harvard Business Review to my regular reading list.  I already tweeted that the September 09 issue is about Sustainability/Innovation and how green will save us.  There are four centre pieces under this umbrella — “Why Sustainability is Now the Key Driver of Innovation”, “Six Sources of Limitless Energy”, “Using Gifts and Trees to Make Recyclers of Indian Consumers” and “Creating Value in an Economic Crisis” (Bill Clinton) but the key one for me is the innovation piece.

It is authored by Ram Nidumolu, C.K. Prahalad, and M.R. Rangaswami (1 academic and 2 business people) and their key message is that sustainability will yield “both top-line and bottom-line returns” for business.  The context is that often when companies have waved the sustainability flag in the past, it has been under the corporate social responsibility umbrella.  The discussion around board room tables often focused on the expectations that sustainability would adversely affect their bottom line, certainly deliver no financial benefits and perhaps even make them less competitive.But now the evidence is building that companies who embrace organizational and technological innovation that move them to be players in the zero-carbon economy and leaders in conservation, will be at the head of the pack as the economy cycles back.  The authors cite 5 stages that companies go through as they explore ways to make their companies sustainability flagships:

  1. Viewing compliance as an opportunity;
  2. Making value chain sustainable;
  3. Designing sustainable products and services;
  4. Developing new business models; and,
  5. Creating next-practice platforms.

What is really interesting to me is the competencies that they cite as being necessary in companies that are going to be successful in moving through these stages.  These are clues as to how the business curriculum needs to adjust — competencies in carbon management and life-cycle assessment, ability to re-design systems to use less energy and water, capacity to understand what consumers want and to be creative in finding ways to meet the demands and the knowledge of how renewable and nonrenewable resources affect business ecosystems and industries.

So — if these people have it right — the drive for sustainability has the potential to motivate companies to be big innovators and to make the triple bottom line work — positive movement in the environmental, social and economic columns of the spreadsheet.

And — it also means that business schools have a responsibility to integrate new competencies or at least refine competencies to ensure their graduates have the skills to be sustainability innovators.  And the learning models to support building those competencies.

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