Why getting serious about sustainability needs to start with training

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. 

Training fosters knowledge transfer, giving rise to further innovation, efficiency and competitive insight. In my role as a founding member of Saba Software, a leading provider of learning and talent management systems, we had countless discussions about how the increasing complexity of products and services required new systems and strategies to effectively transfer the “know how” to incorporate and use these new products and services across the extended enterprise. Smart companies embraced these strategies with significant results. 

Sustainability is another context in which to facilitate knowledge transfer and establish corporate excellence – like safety, quality, code of conduct, diversity and IT. It provides a new lens for viewing the business, including the corporate ecosystem that extends to the communities in which it operates. The knowledge transfer challenge is to find ways to help people become fundamentally more aware of how factors that we label under the umbrella of sustainability affect their day job and the lives and day jobs of others. 

Establish job relevance

Organizations such as Procter & Gamble and the U.S. Postal Service are making sustainability part of job performance. P&G identified key roles – marketing, R&D, product teams and supply chain personnel – and targeted learning solutions for each group. The U.S. Postal Service targets audiences as broadly defined as executives, plant managers, fleet operators and postmasters with specific learning modules. Providing targeted learning solutions helps employees understand how key sustainability principles apply to their specific job function so they are better able to see opportunities and take actions that contribute to the overall strategy of the organization.

Role-based learning is also the design paradigm in the interactive online learning curriculum from Tripos Software and Natural Logic called Sustainability In Practice. Learning modules focus on product development, operations, supply chains and procurement, buildings, IT and marketing. 

Yet, most organizations haven’t addressed the role its employees have in achieving sustainability targets. The Government Business Council, in a study underwritten by Deloitte, recently surveyed federal agency sustainability executives about their progress on the many sustainability initiatives mandated by White House Executive Order 13514. Among the findings, “60 percent of the respondents thought that better education, training and engagement would lead to more sustainable practices in their agency,” and over half of them felt their sustainability efforts had so far been “inadequate.” 

Engagement for the asking

Sustainability may not be obvious to a lot of people inside a company, and how it affects their day job may be even less obvious. But neither was safety or diversity until, supported by training, accident rates went down and diversity in management ranks went up. And unlike compliance training, which can be rote and tedious, sustainability training is inspiring. People genuinely want to learn more about this stuff and are willing to go out of their way to seek it out. 

As we have seen from previous articles that warn about the inertia of groupthink, it’s not the “s-word” we need to instill. If someone wants to learn more about climate change, global warming or how to recycle, a web search will do. Rather, the sustainability knowledge we need to transfer is how it affects our products, services and operating strategies – our jobs, all our jobs, across the extended enterprise so we can do something about it. The difference will be found in making our work and our companies more worthy and therefore better positioned for the future. If companies want to excel in new competitive environments, they simply need to start training for it.  

Image credit: CC license by Robert S. Donovan / Flickr