In the fourth installment in a series about the next generation of CSR management, Gregory Unruh stresses the value of developing a common language of sustainability within your company.

It doesn’t take much to discover that sustainability means different things to different people. Try engaging on the topic with external stakeholders. Labor advocates see it differently than Greenpeace. Community leaders see it differently than regulators. Who you’re talking to affects what they hear.

Part of the CSR Director’s job is navigating these diverse meanings and communicating effectively across them. And as discussed in earlier posts, these external skills are turned inward by sustainability insurgents.

A business can be viewed in a variety of ways. MBAs tend to see it as an economic entity competing for market share. Lawyers see it as a “nexus of contracts.” Sociologists talk in terms of culture and human relations. None of these views is inherently better than any of the others. The value of any view depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

Sustainability insurgents want to embed sustainability thinking into the decision calculus of their organization. The challenge lies in the fact that the levers and tools needed to implement sustainability are controlled not by the CSR office, but by the functional managers in the HR, operations, finance and other departments. What is the best avenue for influencing and persuading functional managers?

Successful sustainability insurgents view their organization as a network of conversations and strategically introduce sustainability thinking into ongoing corporate conversations.

Each functional area has its own conversation built on terminology and jargon suited to their specific business concerns. Advertising talks of impressions, click-throughs, eyeballs. Operations discusses inventory, stocks and processes. HR is concerned with on-boarding, compensation and so on.

Insurgents tap into these functional conversations and help managers develop what can be called a sustainability dialect that translates corporate sustainability goals into the local functional discussions and thinking. This is really the end point of the acculturate phase discussed in the previous series' installment. The Goal is to have the functions take on their unique sustainability responsibility voluntarily. Once sustainability is embedded in their conversations — and ultimately their processes — the function owns it and sustainability becomes a normal part of their decision goals and processes.

As an example of how this works, take the Human Resources function. This department has numerous tools that are important for embedding sustainability across the entire employee lifecycle. Sustainability insurgents begin by engaging in conversations around recruiting, an important HR responsibility. By convincing HR managers to include sustainability questions in the interview process and to view it as a new hire issue, insurgents can ensure that new sustainability expertise is constantly being brought into the company.

Next, insurgents can engage in conversations about adding corporate sustainability training into the on-boarding process. This low- to no-cost step can ensure that employees are engaged with sustainability from day one. Conversations about adding sustainability questions into employee attitude surveys can deepen HR and senior management’s understanding of the impact sustainability values have on employee motivation, loyalty and so on. Eventually, conversations can turn to embedding sustainability into employee evaluation and compensation metrics. By this point, HR has been acculturated to sustainability and owns their role in achieving the company’s sustainability goals.

Similar conversations can take place with each of the functional areas to help them develop their own sustainability dialect for their scope of responsibility. By starting with small, low-cost, low-risk actions, sustainability insurgents can minimize resistance as they gradually acculturate functions to their sustainability role in the organization.