Susan Svoboda and Gary Svoboda
with feedback comments from Stuart L. Hart
The intent of this column will be to examine the roll of “experiential learning” in sustainability training. (Experiential learning is best known by David Kolb’s description of the learning cycle Act-Reflect-Reframe-Apply.)
As we talk to NGO and corporate practitioner colleagues, we hear that after 10 years of various training efforts, and no lack of continuing interest on university campuses, that corporate adoption of sustainability-based initiatives is weak at best. Foundations have largely stopped funding sustainability-oriented programs and in some quarters sustainability is considered a poor choice of words if you want to see an initiative funded. Our analysis is that this is at least in part due to some of the challenging aspects to “making the business case” for sustainability so that there is a high probability of achieving ROI, and particularly triple bottom line ROI, before capital is committed and risk adopted.
Businesses spend millions in product laboratories to mitigate risk and insure ROI, but in most cases lack similar vehicles to evaluate sustainability strategies. Without such testing it is likely that sustainability strategies will remain conversation pieces rather than contributing to business success and sustainability.
However, there are a variety of tools available, all with the stated intent of making strategy development more reliable and insuring ROI by being able to “see” them in action via the tool. Examples include The Coffee Game from Ekos, Amoeba from AtKisson, Transformation: The Business Strategy Laboratory from Realia Group and The New Commons Game from Richard Powers. (In this column we’ll use Transformation as our reference point most often, but will draw in lessons from others as well.)
But adoption of these tools by corporations has been slow for a variety of reasons. The purpose of this column will be to evaluate the various value propositions offered by these tools to demonstrate their potential and create greater acceptance of their use with an intent of accelerating the adoption of corporate sustainability initiatives. To do that we will use individual columns to explore specific uses and draw on respected colleagues, consultants, practitioners and faculty to comment from their direct experience on the ideas presented. We hope such a dialogue will break down any unnecessary barriers to adoptions.
A favorite anecdote in that vein comes from Duke and Guerts textbook: Policy Games for Strategic Management. Their collaboration wasn’t “love at first sight”. As reported in their book: “To Jac Guerts, a computer-trained researcher…, Duke’s games looked frivolous and alarmingly low-tech. Reluctantly, Jac Guerts participated in (Richard) Duke’s Hexagon game and was immediately sold. ‘I have played a game today,’ he told his wife that evening, ’and I must admit it, it probably has 500 percent more effect on a person than any of our computer models.’” Being thought frivolous in the serious business of corporate strategy development is a significant impediment.
So we put the question to Stuart L. Hart, SC Johnson Professor for Global Sustainable Enterprise at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management. (He is also the co-designer of Transformation: The Business Strategy Laboratory.) Why did you feel it was a good use of your time to invest in designing Transformation and what did you see missing in sustainability education that you felt it would bring to your corporate clients and university work?
“I’ve contributed conceptual models for developing sustainable enterprises, demonstrating their potential to generate value for the firm, but real understanding, the ability to truly use these concepts, requires that the practitioner become comfortable and conversant with implementing these ideas in an actual company and organizational setting. Susan and I developed Transformation because we were convinced that an experiential tool was an essential tool for making sustainability real. Yes, it takes time, but a lot less than an actual corporate project. It’s just not enough to discuss concepts in class and at conferences with colleagues, and there’s too much risk associated with jumping from conceptual framework to implementation. That’s a little too Alice in Wonderland – verdict first and trial later.” Stuart L. Hart
Our next column will address: how to make it real. What elements are necessary to insure “validity” when using an experiential tool / laboratory?
Susan and Gary Svoboda, partners in Realia Group, a distance-based firm with offices in Reston, VA and Broomfield, CO, develop and market experiential learning programs including Transformation: The Business Strategy Laboratory. They can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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