Collaboration Is the Key to Green Success

The Sustainable MBA

Collaboration Is the Key to Green Success

Smart business boils down to leveraging resources in a profitable manner. As awareness grows of the alarming constraints on the planet's finite resources and the imminent need for sustainable business models, executives must stretch existing financial, natural and human capital ever more thinly to stay on track.

Yet an alternative exists right here in our own backyard in the untapped wealth of knowledge, capacity and energy of more than 2,500 accredited institutions of higher education in the United States.

As businesses race to adapt to the changing global landscape, sustainability must become an integrated process, rather than an add-on department or an annual reporting function. The flexible, dynamic organizations that thrive in the new economy will be built upon innovation, empowerment, and knowledge sharing across all departments and job functions.

To streamline this process and ensure a steady pipeline of compatible employees, businesses must reach far back down their supply chain to the universities and graduate business schools that serve as factories where the ideas, skill sets, and technologies of tomorrow are being shaped.

Just as new graduates bring an incredible level of ease with new technology to the workplace, imagine if they entered the business world with the comparable skills and experience required for sustainable business practices. Certainly, there are challenges to effective interaction between business and academia, including patenting and licensing rights, intellectual freedom concerns, and a healthy dose of bureaucracy.

Yet today's ecological and financial realities, coupled with the breadth of untapped opportunity for collaboration, demand a new partnership paradigm. To maintain global competitiveness and adequately prepare tomorrow's knowledge workers, business and academia can no longer exist as separate silos, but must integrate as thriving, complementary networks. Specifically, what benefits does this symbiotic approach offer to the corporate world?

Advantage: Open source R&D

Governed by the Bayh-Dole Act, technology transfer between universities and the corporate world is undergoing a radical transformation in the age of wikinomics and crowdsourcing communities like Innocentive. On the business end, corporate titans IBM, Nokia, Sony and Pitney Bowes joined forces earlier this year to launch the free Eco-Patent Commons initiative. From the academic side, efforts like the Association of University Technology Managers' Better World Project promise to rapidly accelerate R&D partnerships between university research powerhouses and forward-thinking corporations.

Advantage: Innovation through cross-pollination

Sustainable solutions leverage expertise from a wide variety of disciplines -- a reality that the Presidio School of Management holds front of mind when recruiting incoming MBA cohorts. For example, my first semester team brought together the skill sets of a hydropower entrepreneur, an international relief worker, a former financial planner, a graphic designer, and a 15-year veteran of the petroleum industry. Through Presidio's project-oriented curriculum, savvy businesses can tap these interdisciplinary teams to develop real-world operations plans, marketing strategies and financial analyses tailored to the company's needs.

Advantage: Pipeline of talented new hires

As a founding partner of the Golisano Institute of Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology, Xerox Corp. crafted a platform for researching new product designs, remanufacturing, and pollution abatement while adding 50 students per year to the growing roster of 2,200 RIT alumni who currently work for the company.

Advantage: Accelerated growth of new markets

Building on a track record of industry-leading telecommunications and biotech hubs launched from campus spin-offs, the University of California, San Diego is at it again, this time targeting the clean tech sector. Campus leaders are developing the nation's largest university-based sustainable energy program by pairing student research teams with solar, biofuel and IT companies to form living laboratories focused on tomorrow's technology.

What does a successful partnership look like in practice? To maximize movement within your organization towards the systems-oriented sustainability mindset, focus on incorporating these key concepts into your internship programs, student competitions, RFP announcements, and academic research collaborations:
  1. Interdisciplinary teams: Spark new ideas across departments.
  2. Tap into technology: Enable the wired generation to run with it.
  3. Long-term thinking: Plan for the end of a product's useful life.
  4. Emphasis on efficiency: Do more with less.
  5. Zero waste mindset: Encourage closed-loop strategies.
Whether your company has a long-standing relationship with higher education institutions or is just beginning to explore this invaluable resource, the sustainable business imperative offers an unprecedented opportunity to forge innovative partnerships with the academic world. Looking to get started or enhance your current efforts? Browse best practices, access toolkits, and join other leading-edge businesses through participation in the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, the business portal for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (featuring corporate partners like Trane and Chevron Energy Solutions), or Net Impact, the professional association for socially-minded MBAs. Don't hesitate-18 million eager U.S. university and graduate school students are waiting to hear from you.

Julie Sammons is a San Francisco-based media and design strategist focused on the sustainability, technology and nonprofit sectors. She holds a B.S. in Microbiology and managed national and statewide public health programs prior launching her communications consulting practice. An MBA student at Presidio School of Management, her current interests include geospatial visualization, biomimicry and design for the developing world.