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On the Job

From Corporations to Communities: Nurturing the Human Dimension of Sustainability


We are each other's business.
-- Gwendolyn Brooks.



It's Monday and you wake up without an alarm clock, looking forward to your day at the office -- you love what you do and you love the people with whom you work. You are a member of a community: trust, mutual support, open communication, and friendships sustain your whole self as much as does the income you receive from your job.

Just a dream? Russell Ackoff, professor emeritus of management science at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, observes that "the principal obstructions to corporate development are usually self-imposed." In fact, this idyllic scenario isn't quite as out of reach as you might think. As more people come to value right livelihood and community, a new kind of organizational culture is fast emerging.

Think of the small entrepreneurial software company that rents an office with an eye to livability as well as workability. Inside, it has work/play/learning areas for business meetings, workout sessions, and creative arts seminars. Outside, it is near a favorite coffee shop and Wi-Fi accessible green areas. The people who work here are as focused on making a life as on making a living.

That's fine for a startup, you say. Major corporations require a more hierarchical structure to function efficiently and maintain a competitive edge. But what are these corporations giving up? What is the economic value of attracting and retaining talent? How much does it cost to keep a work team healthy and motivated? What is the impact on the bottom line of people's ability to create and innovate? These questions relate to human and social capital; they are indicators of a larger movement to redefine the meaning of business success. By way of example, consider the Corporation 2020 initiative, which seeks to redesign corporations to integrate social and financial purpose.

According to Dee Hock, founder and CEO emeritus of VISA International, the corporation is at its most basic level a community. We define community as a group of people with a shared identity, a common purpose, and a commitment to the joint creation of meaning. True community cannot be created top-down: it self-organizes through the cultivation of relationships, through a coming together around issues that matter to all involved. This is especially true for "knowledge workers" whose source of value is their ability to learn, create, and collaborate. Community provides a context for individual inspiration through collective aspiration and underpins high-performance teams.

To create corporations as communities, or to transform existing ones, is not revolutionary but evolutionary: the emergence of a new form of social organization that seeks efficiency and productivity through human wholeness. There is a lot that can be done to assist in this evolutionary transformation. Here are some ideas:

Listen for readiness
Plenty of indicators show how unsustainable it is to continue depleting the human spirit in organizations. What are the signs you see of people yearning for community? Where are the fertile conditions for the seed of community to sprout and bear fruit?

Find common ground
There are many things that pull people apart, but what are the issues and concerns that can pull you together? What do you all care about?

Learn the art of facilitating learning and strategic conversations
We're not talking about small talk, but big talk! What are the questions that need to be asked? Who are the voices that need to be heard? How should the community engage in conversations that build trust, promote learning, and enable positive action?

Make it fun
Margaret Mead, reflecting on the importance of communities as stewards of change, noted that "there must be humor, laughter, games and good food as well." Work and learning don't have to be all chores and bores, do they? How can you make them interesting?

Reconnect with nature
Nature is a community. There is so much we can learn from and with nature. Can you hold a meeting while walking through the park? Can you create a garden where you work? Can you schedule a hike? How could you celebrate the turning of the seasons?

At Presidio School of Management we have the opportunity to live the value of community. As a learning community committed to sustainability, our collaborative work focuses on empowering evolutionary leaders able to assist in the creation of life-affirming business practices. It takes whole human beings to become evolutionary leaders. Through them truly sustainable companies are forged of strength, wisdom, and inspiration in the crucible of the communities to which they belong.

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Drs. Alexander Laszlo and Kathia C. Laszlo are co-founders of Syntony Quest, through which they offer consulting on the design of new ways of working and learning that embody social and environmental integrity. As core faculty and co-directors of Learning Community and Student Relations at Presidio School of Management they teach the courses "Evolutionary Leadership, Collaboration, and Systems Thinking" and "Strategic Management." Their research and writing span systems thinking, organizational change, educational innovation, technology policy, and sustainability.

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