From classroom to corporation: Bringing fresh thinking to sustainability learning

Few problems pose greater difficulties for corporate executives than today’s sustainability issues. Complex and rapidly changing science, multiple stakeholders with conflicting agendas, societal disruptions and policy uncertainty create unique and constantly shifting circumstances for each issue that arises, taxing any leader’s professional experience and education. Cookie-cutter approaches don’t work, and the ability to think systemically and cross-culturally is at a premium.

Such challenges call for fresh approaches to preparing leaders to implement sustainable business solutions, and for creative cross-sectoral partnerships to address today’s problems. In order to meet these challenges, we need innovation in educational curriculum and training that reaches beyond the classroom and engages business leaders more directly to help students understand contemporary realities and apply their knowledge to improve both living standards and planetary conditions.

Seeking the fresh insights that come from innovative collaborations, the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and the World Environment Center recently announced a new partnership to provide graduate students with direct access to senior level sustainability executives of global companies in WEC’s membership and business networks. Through this partnership, students will obtain direct experience on how companies evaluate and apply sustainability-related data and formulate decision-making options.

The program, called the Erb/WEC Fellowships, will be supported by IBM as part of the company’s long-term commitment to environmental sustainability and developing next-generation skills for the 21st-century workforce. IBM was recently recognized for the second consecutive year as the greenest company in the U.S., according to the Newsweek 2012 Green Rankings survey, and is working with WEC and other companies to solve major sustainability challenges.

WEC’s business model is unique in its “direct, on-the-ground” application of sustainable development strategies and practices in developed and emerging markets. It convenes customers and suppliers to solve problems, helps integrate sustainable development into business operations and assesses business relevant strategies and processes across multiple sectors.

Erb/WEC Fellows will take an active role in WEC’s thought leadership innovation Roundtables by identifying potential speakers; synthesizing research; participating as speakers; preparing course materials and communications to the professional sustainability community; and developing articles, blogs and social media communications on Roundtable results. Students chosen to participate will then prepare research papers suitable for publication.

WEC’s partnership with the Erb Institute puts into action the recommendations of its publication last October, with Net Impact, of “Business Skills for a Changing World: An Assessment of What Global Companies Need from Business Schools.” The report was based on a 2010 WEC roundtable hosted by IBM and Roche in which representatives of global corporations, academia and non-governmental organizations met to discuss the teaching of sustainability, the needs of the marketplace, and opportunities for better alignment between the two. This event was supplemented by in-depth interviews conducted by Net Impact and WEC with approximately 35 senior sustainability executives in different business sectors across geographic regions.

The report includes a review of the skill sets required of new MBA hires who plan to work in companies that are actively implementing sustainability programs. According to the executives interviewed, the balance between inward-looking technical and management skills, outward-focused communications, and customer and stakeholder management skills is a priority for nearly all companies represented in the report.

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