Why getting serious about sustainability needs to start with training

At a recent BECC conference I was listening to a panel with Fortune 1000 company representatives discussing behavior change and energy efficiency. I took note of a question an audience member posed to the panel: “Where’s training in all of this? Why it is missing among the actions you’re taking?” 

The panelists seemed perplexed and didn’t offer much response. Intrigued by the question and its importance at a conference on behavior change, I introduced myself to the person who asked it, Mick Dalrymple of the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. It was not surprising to note that someone affiliated with the higher education sector would ask about training. 

But Dalrymple wasn’t asking about higher education or professional certification or adding sustainability courses to MBA programs. He was asking about corporate training – providing employees with training on sustainability topics relevant to the company’s goals, business strategy, operations and, ultimately, their own jobs.  

The logic behind his question was rather straightforward, if we look at the central role of training in guiding corporate behavior change. Consider how safety became job-one in most organizations. Or how diversity helped level the playing field, opening new doors for career opportunities and rewarding companies with more ideas as well as different perspectives, talents and insights. Think how companies and workers successfully adopted new technologies to operate more efficiently and build faster, better and more nimble capabilities.  

Training has been the common thread throughout these successive waves of corporate change. Safety and quality became driving themes because substantial training and awareness were built into the effort. In fact, if one examines the guiding principles to implement these processes, the first operational steps always were training-related: encouraging companies to institute training programs, teaching leadership, encouraging learning and self-improvement, and optimizing team efforts towards quality and safety. 

Diversity is nearing mainstream in many companies today because of substantial training and company commitment behind it. Corporate focus on technology for competitive advantage through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s has made IT training an industry unto itself whether for desktop and productivity tools; networks, systems and infrastructure; or contemporary Web 2.0 collaboration and social media technologies. Throughout it all, training has benefited the company and the people who work there. 

Up next: training for sustainability

If sustainability is truly a desired corporate objective that contributes to the company’s strategy and positively affects employees, customers, partners and the community around it, where is the training? 

That was the essence of the subsequent conversation between Mr. Dalrymple and me. If companies are talking about sustainability goals and wanting to get more employees involved, then where is the training to help nurture it and drive change behind the effort? Equally important, with the absence of training, what’s being missed in terms of employee contributions, new insights and ideas, and other opportunities to engage people? 

Learning is a proven and well-documented strategy for strong individual and corporate performance. In her book "Good Company," Laurie Bassi discusses requirements for companies to be successful in the “worthiness era” of which sustainability and being a good employer are key parts. Interestingly, her research started by studying the correlations between corporate training investments and stock market performance. Bassi found that companies with strong commitments to training attained a positive 47 percent mean change in market value (as compared to book value) whereas companies with comparatively weaker commitments averaged a 4 percent decline in value during the same three-year period. 

Next page: Making training relevant