Bridging the Gap Between Green Business Research and Practice

Bridging the Gap Between Green Business Research and Practice

There has long been a nearly universal gap between the cutting-edge research in academic institutions and the implementation of researchers' solutions in the real world. The business world is no exception of course, but when it comes to developing greener solutions to business challenges, there is a huge demand for any information that can give companies a competitive advantage while moving toward a low-carbon economy.

The Network for Business Sustainability, based at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, has as its mission bringing the most pressing questions on sustainability to the research agenda -- and feeding the results back into practice. I recently spoke with Tom Ewart, the managing director, about the Network's history and where it's focusing its efforts now and for the future.

Matthew Wheeland: How did the network come about?

Tom Ewart: We're facing many social, environmental and economic challenges. We're leaving huge value on the table by not sharing what we know and collaborating with others to problem solve. Fundamentally, that's the issue the Network for Business Sustainability is trying to address.

The longer history goes back about five years. Tima Bansal, a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business in Canada, was lamenting with a number of her colleagues the fact that it seemed that their research didn't have much impact on the world of practice, despite a great appetite for better understanding of sustainability. Over the next couple of months, by talking with a number of people in the sustainability world, both in research and in industry, they made a great realization.

They realized that a bridging mechanism was needed, a network that would feed the most pressing, relevant questions into the research agenda, and enable collaboration between people working on them in industry and academia. This would result in good quality, relevant knowledge that would then be fed back into research and inform actual decisions being made on the ground. About three years ago, the Network for Business Sustainability was formed, and for the last two years we've been operating fully funded.

We're funded primarily by the Canadian federal government through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, a granting agency for academics. So everything we do is freely available on our website. Also, we wouldn't exist without support from the corporations on our Leadership Council, a number of federal government departments, and several universities in Canada.

MW: What is your relationship to the business community, whether through the Leadership Council or in other areas?

TE: The Leadership Council is what makes us relevant to the real world. It is comprised of about 15 organizations, each representing a different sector. Each has been identified as a leader in sustainability -- they're all organizations that have been thinking about these issues for a long time, and who've been acting on them in a substantive way for a long time. They include SAP, Unilever, Holcim, Canadian Pacific, Research In Motion, Syngenta, TD Bank, Teck, Suncor Energy, Telus, Tembec, BC Hydro, as well as government and NGO leaders.

These are the leaders to whom we turn to ensure that our research is relevant. Researchers have a lot of interesting questions on their mind, and many of those questions are relevant to the real world. But some aren't. For the researchers that are interested in exploring issues that are going to have an immediate impact, the best thing to do is to ask the people on the front line what is of most use to them: What would you most benefit from if you had more or better knowledge? What are your knowledge priorities for business sustainability?

We compile a list of those key needs, developed in consensus after a full day of dialogue one day a year, and we communicate those questions to our research community and our community of practice. This influences the research agenda. Also, the lagging companies out there can benefit from knowing what the leading companies are struggling with and thinking about.

MW: How do you reach out to companies beyond your Leadership Council?

TE: It's a good question so I will give a long-winded answer. The research that academics do often contains a lot of very interesting, valuable findings, but very rarely is it in a form that is accessible, actionable by decision makers. We translate, repackage and communicate academic research through different channels to thousands of managers.

On translating and repackaging, there are all sorts of challenges. Probably the most obvious is that academics speak a different language than managers. There's a need to translate 30-40 page academic papers that are written in a certain jargon, into one-pagers or half-pagers, written in managerial language, that are easily and efficiently accessed by managers. We call these Research Insights -- they're one-page executive summaries of the best academic research on various topics.

Also, individual research studies often aren't enough to answer the big questions. Academics need to take deep dives into important questions -- exploring narrow questions in a deep way. That's what needs to happen in order for them to publish and take on manageable projects. But managers are often interested in and need a broad knowledge base -- it may still be deep, but it's got to be broad. We consider series of studies from entire bodies of research. We do comprehensive, broad literature reviews, and then repackage what we find into executive summaries.

Some managers don't have the time to read research in any form, even if it's just a one-pager; if there's too much text it's a turnoff. So we're in the process of developing tools that are process or decision oriented and walk managers through key decisions, such as how to develop a community engagement strategy. They're based again on that rigorous academic research, but repackaged in a very different way that appeals a different audience.

NBS Literature Review on Climate ChangeWith respect to communication, once we develop these products, we're not just passive in issuing a press release and posting them to a website. We develop PowerPoint presentations, videos, interviews, and events based on the findings. And we never consider them complete -- we realize there's a ton of value in engaging the communities of research and practice together, and creating an iterative process of learning.

When we complete projects, we have really just completed the first stage of a project. We will then run it by decision makers, by the community of people who will use it. We do this through conference calls or webinars to present to decision makers, then maybe also run a workshop to further develop the tool or research or model.

We try to get this knowledge out as broadly as we can to any manager who can put it to good use. Again, everything we do is freely available on our website so it is widely accessible to anyone in business or not.

There are currently five top-level topics listed on your website: Business Sustainability, Climate Change, Consumerism, Stakeholder Engagement, and Valuing Sustainability. How do you determine the most pressing issues for the business community?

Every year we produce a list of the top knowledge priorities in business sustainability, identified by our Leadership Council. After we've identified them, we focus everything we do for the next year on the top two or three priorities.

The topics currently on our website represent the top two priorities from each of the last two years, in addition to a catch-all topic (business sustainability) that allows us to capture the compelling and interesting things that don't fit into existing buckets.

This fall, we will add knowledge on two new topics to our website: Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture, and Measuring and Valuing Environmental Impacts. In late spring 2011, we will add another topic on Sustainable Supply Chains.

MW: What kind of output do you have after a year's focus on these topics?

TE: In 2008, we focused on Metrics for Valuing Business Sustainability as well as Best Practices in Engaging the Community, specifically external stakeholder engagement. The key outcome from the stakeholder engagement project was a framework that allows managers to assess and ensure consistency within their community engagement strategy. Based on an extensive review of the research on community engagement, it appears that there are 3 different types of community engagement -- namely "transactional," "transitional" and "transformative". Each of those implies a different set of activities. The key learning for managers is that you need to be consistent in your community engagement strategy.

For example, sometimes organizations talk the transformative talk, but then will only engage in one-way communication very infrequently with the community, and don't integrate their input directly into the decision-making process. That is a misaligned community engagement strategy. The framework allows managers to think about what kind of community engagement strategy they want to have, and presents a number of different factors that help them ensure internal consistency with their strategy. We created a super-list of those best practices that recurred in multiple studies -- 17 best practice principles that help managers think about what type of engagement they want to undertake along with activities to put it into practice.

In 2009, we focused on Climate Adaptation and Sustainable Consumerism. In our work with consumerism, we found a bit of a shocker. We hear of many different surveys claiming outrageous numbers about how many people want to buy green and how much of a premium they'll pay for green. But these are all stated intentions, which are often quite biased. As it turns out, there's actually a startling lack of rigorous evidence about how people behave with respect to sustainability.

A key learning for managers is recognizing that consumers go through three different stages: from attitudes, to intentions, to behaviors. Consumers have certain attitudes toward sustainability. Researchers measure that and generally find that the numbers are through the roof. Many more studies have looked at consumer intentions, and found much the same thing. But then there's a huge dropoff between intentions and behaviors. Our study suggests some impediments consumers face that lead to that dropoff and how managers can avoid them.

When someone walks in a store, having decided that they want to buy green toilet paper, for example, why do they walk out the store with the same old TP they've bought for the last two years? There are all sorts of issues at play, from signage, packaging and promotion, to placement, to pricing. Managers can benefit from a guide think about what those issues are and how to address them.

We're still learning how best to translate, repackage and communicate such useful information to sustainability managers. Businesses and society face serious risks and opportunities -- we're just doing our little bit to help them address these really tricky issues.