MIT Sloan School professor Thomas Malone addresses the mental models that impede management progress, the role of collective intelligence in solving climate problems, and his view of how wrong people are about what business is for. An MIT Sustainability Interview by Michael S. Hopkins.
How do you define sustainability?
I have what you could call a larger, more ambitious notion of sustainability. Businesses can be used to accomplish a very wide range of human goals, not just making money. Business is a human enterprise, not just an economic one, and if we lose sight of that fact, we run the risk of undermining what businesses could do for us.
What are you working on now in the area of sustainability and its implications for business?
We have a big project in the Center for Collective Intelligence on global climate change. We call it the Climate Collaboratorium. The starting premise is that many people would say that global climate change is one of, if not the most, important societal problem we face. And if ever there was a problem that needed the most collective intelligence we can muster, this would be one of them.
So what can we do? How can we harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people all over the world and whatever computational resources they can take advantage of to help us humans figure this out?
Why do you think harnessing collective intelligence can be so powerful in tackling climate change?
To solve the climate problem, we need a huge range of expertise. We've got to know things about the physics of the upper atmosphere and the chemistry of the oceans and the psychology of consumers who are making decisions about when to drive versus take public transportation. Collective intelligence mechanisms are ideal for bringing together those diverse kinds of knowledge.
Part of what we're trying to do with the Climate Collaboratorium is what we call radically open computer modeling, to bring the spirit of systems like Wikipedia and Linux to the problem of global climate change. We want thousands of people all over the world to be able to discuss and modify models of the social, economic, and physical systems related to climate change. We want them to be able to see and change real quantitative plans for what we could do and what is likely to happen if we do these things. And, finally, we want them to be able to collectively decide which plans seem the most promising.
In a sense, we want to combine a kind of Sims Online for climate change, a Wikipedia for controversial topics, and a form of electronic democracy on steroids!
Imagine I'm an executive, interested in understanding how my organization is going to need to function differently in the fast-coming future as the result of growing concerns about sustainability. What should I be prepared for?
One thing, I think, will be a reconsideration of the "centralized mindset." The idea is that if there's a problem to be solved, we should put someone in charge of it, and if things are not well organized, that's because there isn't strong leadership. This mindset is very pervasive in our world.
But organizing things this way is becoming less useful in many situations. There are now more decentralized ways of organizing things that are becoming more desirable. In Linux, for example, a loose band of programmers, with very limited top-down control has developed an operating system that rivals Microsoft Windows. Sometimes, the best way for a leader to gain power is to give it away.
In addition to the belief in centralization, what other assumptions will need to change?
I think the heart of the answer is that managers and especially executives will need to serve the interests of a broader range of stakeholders. Serving the interests of stockholders is only part of the job. Managers also need to worry about serving the interests of their employees, their customers, their suppliers, and society in general. That's another mental barrier that I think people need to get past.
This is an interesting avenue you're taking -- thinking about the larger possibilities for business reinvention that be found in the course of addressing sustainability...
[Businesspeople] often think of sustainability as a constraint rather than an objective. In this way of thinking, the goal of business is to 'maximize profits subject to the constraint of fulfilling your obligations to society.'
But what I'm saying here is that you can flip that around. You can say there's no reason at all why a business cannot maximize its contribution to society subject to the constraint of producing a reasonable financial return.
Puzzle image by StockXchng user ilco.