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Organizational Learning in Corporate Sustainability

Updated on September 19, 2012

I wrote my Master's Thesis on corporate sustainability reporting, where I identified the resources and capabilities that assist organizations in successfully employing a corporate sustainability agenda. The capabilities that I found to be helpful are: leadership, team building, learning, and knowledge dissemination.

In this article, I will explain what organizational learning is, what corporate sustainability is and why learning is so important for organizations who are pursuing a sustainability agenda.

What is Organizational Learning Theory?

Organizational learning theory refers to companies' employees learning through different means in response to internal and external changes. Organizations that employ organizational learning encourage employees to keep learning, to share knowledge, and to take risks without being penalized for mistakes.

When a company decides to pursue corporate sustainability efforts or even strategy, employees will need to learn new ways of doing things. Before explaining this in further detail, let's take a look what corporate sustainability means.

The triple bottom line or the three P's - profit, people and planet are the three long-term factors that contribute to corporate sustainability
The triple bottom line or the three P's - profit, people and planet are the three long-term factors that contribute to corporate sustainability | Source

What is Corporate Sustainability?

Corporate sustainability is the business world's recognition that the current approach to development is inadequate and that something needs to change.

It refers to companies efforts to try to meet the needs of current stakeholders (including groups such as shareholders, employees, suppliers, etc.) without compromising the needs of future stakeholders by integrating good social, economic, and environmental practices into operations.

Social, economic, and environmental dimensions are commonly referred to as the Triple Bottom Line, which was a concept coined by John Elkington who explained that the three are interrelated and need to be addressed for companies who want to follow a sustainability agenda.

The key in corporate sustainability is for companies to have a long-term outlook.

Org Learning in Companies Quiz

Does the company where you work employ organizational learning as a way of implementing sustainability agendas?

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Significance of Learning in Corporate Sustainability

Organizational learning has the potential to play a key role in organizations successfully implementing their sustainability efforts, and according to Molnar & Mulvihill (2003), to accelerate their transition to becoming more sustainable. Jamali (2006) explained that organizations that promote learning are able to better integrate a sustainability agenda since they embrace openness to new ideas and experimentation, as well as tolerate mistakes. Through learning, organizations change their values and practices, and in turn, change their organizational cultures. Another scholar, Stone (2006), noted that training employees helps achieve a higher degree of organizational commitment to efforts.

Education and training can be a vehicle to disseminate sustainability to all areas of an organization and even incorporate it into everyday routines of employees. Therefore, companies should take advantage of their staff’s potential by providing them with opportunities for self-development, continuous growth and to acquire new skills by providing them with education and training opportunities (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2001). Jamali (2006) asserts that employees should be encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning and development.

Training is often the starting point in organizations implementing sustainability efforts since these require a new way of operating and even a different way of thinking. Specific types of trainings that companies should provide depend on factors such as the organization’s sector and size. An efficient way of offering training is to provide opportunities for employees to do online courses, also known as e-learning. These have the added benefit of completions being automatically tracked and minimizing an organization’s carbon footprint.

Learning can also be derived from analyzing peers’ and competitors’ successes and benchmarking to them. Likewise, when organizations decide to report their corporate sustainability efforts using Global Reporting Initiative's (GRI’s) guidelines for the first time, they should consider investing in GRI training. Training options include attending GRI certified training programs, which are helpful for anyone who wishes to gain general knowledge about GRI. GRI also offers additional guidance through its GRI Learning Publications.

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, which is one of the most acclaimed books on organizational learning said, "A shared vision is not an idea… it is, rather, a force in people’s hearts, a force of impressive power".

Learning Sustainability Ideas

Below are some ideas for companies who want to support learning sustainability.

  • Support e-learning: Classroom trainings and workshops that companies hold for their employees can have a rather large carbon footprint. Instead, use e-learning options such as virtual classrooms or self-paced online classes.
  • Conserve energy: There are numerous of ways to conserve energy at the office. Some examples include:
    - use energy saving light bulbs
    - shut off electronics at night
    - use motion detectors so that lights automatically get shut off when a room isn't in use
  • Use video teleconferencing: Rather than having people travel for meetings, hold video teleconferencing which is convenient for employees, saves money, saves time, and cuts down the carbon footprint
  • Allow teleworking: Teleworking allows employees the flexibility of working from home and like teleconferencing, saves money, saves time, and cuts down the carbon footprint for the employer.

List of References

Molnar, E., & Mulvihill, P. R. (2003), Sustainability-focused Organizational Learning: Recent Experiences and New Challenges. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 46 (2), 167-176.

Jamali, D. (2006), Insights into triple bottom line integration from a learning organization perspective. Business Process Management Journal, 12 (6), 809-821.

Stone, L. (2006), Limitations of cleaner production programs as organizational change agents. I. Achieving commitment and on-going improvement. Journal of Cleaner Production, 1, 1-14.


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