Meeting the sustainability challenge will require the kind of cross-sector collaboration for which there is still no real precedent. It must be co-created by various stakeholders by interweaving work in three realms: the conceptual, the relational and the action-driven.
Today, as consumer choices on one side of the planet affect living conditions for people on the other side and complex supply chains span the globe, businesses are facing a host of “sustainability” problems — social and ecological imbalances created by this globalization. Beginning in the late 1990s, organizational members of the Society for Organizational Learning (including Shell, Harley-Davidson, HP, Xerox and Nike, among others) began a variety of initiatives focusing on collaborative solutions to a variety of sustainability issues. The group’s goals have included the application of systems thinking, working with mental models, and fostering personal and shared vision to face these complex sustainability issues. Through its work, SoL (of which two of the authors are founding members) has learned that successful collaborative efforts embrace three interconnected types of work — conceptual, relational and action-driven — which together build a healthy “learning ecology” for systemic change. In this article, the authors offer examples from particular projects in which this learning ecology provided an important foundation for substantive progress, and they draw lessons for companies and managers regarding each of the three types of work. Ultimately, the authors conclude that conceptual, relational and action-driven work must be systemically interwoven and that there is little real precedent for that. They offer several guidelines for how it can be accomplished, emphasizing leadership and transactional networks. Finally, they pose three questions that must be answered if systemic solutions are to be successful: (1) How can we get beyond benchmarking to building learning communities? (2) What is the right balance between specifying goals and creating space for reflection and innovation? (3) What is the right balance between private interest and public knowledge?