Transitioning towards a better world: fostering organizational sustainability through dialogic interaction

The journal ‘The Learning Organization’ has just published a special issue on  “The importance of educational learning for organizational sustainability” edited by Peter Smith. The special issue has a paper I co-authored with a very talented graduate student of Wageningen University – Lisa Schwarzin. It blends the wonderful research experience of Lisa in India, where she spent some time investigating a “sustainable community”  in Auroville, with some research we did in a Dutch “sustainable community” in the town of Culemborg, near Utrecht.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction (citation – Arjen E.J. Wals, Lisa Schwarzin, (2012) “Fostering organizational sustainability through dialogical interaction”, Learning Organization, The, Vol. 19 Iss: 1, pp.11 – 27):

In this contribution organizational sustainability has a normative underpinning that considers an organization or a community sustainable when it contributes to a more sustainable world as can be understood with our current knowledge and understanding of what sustainability might entail. In other words, a sustainable organization does not refer to an organization that succeeds itself in keeping on going by maintaining, for instance, profitability, but rather to one that, given what we know today, successfully balances people, prosperity and planet by searching for a dynamic equilibrium between these 3Ps. Ultimately such a balancing act may require a shift altogether from the maximisation of profit to something completely different such as the maximisation of meaning. This is a different vantage point from so-called green economist perspectives that tend to argue that there is little wrong with the principles of (neo)capitalism,  but that businesses and industries need to adopt production methods that are more efficient (World Bank, 2000). This call for increased efficiency and environmental mindfulness tends to be coupled with the belief that technological advancement can put off the exceeding of the Earth’s carrying capacity. Furthermore, green economists also tend to see the ‘tremendous potential for growth’ that the greening of production and consumption offers (green as a growth industry) (Makower and Pike, 2008).

While the green economy appears to be booming these days, there is a modest but growing undercurrent that suggests that ultimately a transition towards sustainability will not be the result so much of ‘doing things better’ by optimizing our current hegemonic systems but rather demands that we ‘do better things’. The latter requires more fundamental changes in the manner in which we  live, work and spend our leisure time, et cetera,  and on the kinds of values that we pursue. In other words, sustainable developments concern system  innovations that require an integrated redesign of products, lifestyles, processes and structures. This paradigmatic “whole system redesign” perspective (Sterling, 2004) is increasingly supported by economists (McKibben, 2007) as well and by emerging strands within economic sciences such as industrial ecology and ecological economics. In this article we are particularly occupied with the question of how to engage people, organizations and communities in these more fundamental transitions, while recognizing that there is still much to gain from doing things better.

 Below is the abstract as can be found in the journal:

Purpose – This paper aims to introduce and investigate dialogic interaction as a key element of achieving a transition towards sustainability in people, organizations and society as a whole. Furthermore “sustainability competence” as a potential outcome of such interaction is to be introduced, referring to the capacities and qualities that people, and the organizations and communities of which they are part, need in order to address (un)sustainability.

Design/methodology/approach – The argument of the paper is grounded conceptually in emergent thinking among scholars preoccupied with learning-based change and sustainability in organizations and communities. Empirically, the paper uses two case studies carried out by the authors to ground the argument in real efforts by communities to create a (more) sustainable way of living.

Findings – The main results include: a post-normal understanding of sustainability highlighting uncertainty, complexity, normativity, controversy and indeterminacy; a framework facilitating dialogic interaction; and a number of key competences that appear conducive to both dialogic interaction and a transition to sustainability.

Research limitations/implications – Although the two case studies are quite extensive and rigorous, the conceptual nature of the paper and the word limitation did not allow for a more detailed discussion of the methodology used in the case studies and the contexts in which the two case studies are located.

Originality/value – The paper adopts a post-normal perspective of organizational transitions towards sustainability and focuses on dialogue and dialogic interaction as a key learning-based mechanism for facilitating such a transition. Furthermore the framework for dialogic interaction allows for a more holistic approach toward such a transition and the development of competences needed to accelerate its realization.

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One thought on “Transitioning towards a better world: fostering organizational sustainability through dialogic interaction

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