Sustainable Business Transformation

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HPA Perspective on Sustainability: FAQs – 1

Posted by Hemant Puthli on November 7, 2009

Several pertinent questions often come up in discussions on the closely related subjects of ‘Sustainable Business Transformation’ and ‘Sustainable Business Technology’, which form the main theme of our work. What follows below is an attempt to consolidate them into sets of related questions, which have been answered in an interview format so as to capture the spirit of the live (and lively) discussions that we have had with clients and interested parties.

This is the first of 6 posts and deals with a set of questions about HPA’s perspective on sustainability and how it may be similar to, yet different from, other connotations associated with the term.

The concept of sustainability has been around for many decades, so why are you talking about it now as though it is something new? What’s new in what you’re talking about? What’s different about what you’re calling Sustainable Business Transformation through Sustainable Business Technology? Is this something you’ve invented?

‘Sustainability’ has been around for a long time, agreed. Neither have we coined the word nor have we been the first to talk about it in terms of business management (and won’t be the last either). Michael Porter introduced the concept of sustainable competitive advantage in the 1980s along with several other ideas that have dominated management thinking over the last couple of decades. We are not suggesting that those ideas are obsolete and need to be replaced with the apparently new ideas that we are putting forward — on the contrary, we are building on the theme and adapting traditional management thinking around sustainability to reflect current priorities. In a way, we are ‘marking-to-market’ the legacy of ideas around sustainable business and infusing into them some current thinking from other streams, which we shall talk about in a moment. So, in a sense we are saying that those concepts need to be updated and refreshed, but not replaced. Refreshment keeps good ideas alive, relevant and vibrant!

The current thinking mentioned a moment ago is, again, not all that new either and nor is it all our own work, but has its roots in studies on sustainability carried out by socio-economists way back in the 1970s. Environmentalists and economists have been talking about sustainable development for almost as long as management thinkers have been talking about sustainable business, perhaps even longer. As an aside, I would encourage you to look up the Wikipedia portal on sustainable development (the Wikipedia page on sustainable development would be a good starting point) which traces the history of sustainable development and outlines its scope and approach.

So, as you have correctly pointed out, sustainability is not a new thing in either business management or socio-economic or environmental conservation circles. But for a long time these have been like parallel tracks running in parallel universes. In more recent times, pressure from environmentalists and others, exerted on countries and businesses to get smart about the other definitions of ‘sustainability’, has compelled contemporary management thinkers — academicians, consultants and practitioners alike, to see things from a different perspective. So much so that some harsh critics unfairly accuse these pressure groups of having hijacked the meaning of sustainability to serve their own ideological pursuits. It is almost as though the word means different things to different people, which is ironic because it is not at all difficult to synthesize these apparently diverse notions into a single set of concepts and principles.

Ideas like the ‘people-planet-profit’ approach and the ‘triple bottom line’ try to bring all those seemingly disparate views of sustainability together into an integrated and, if you like, holistic definition, which we believe will gain traction with businesses as those ideas crystallize on one hand and businesses become more aware on the other.

The three great crises the world is dealing with as we speak: the great economic crisis (manifesting in the slowdown / recession over the last year or two), the great environmental crisis (manifesting in significant climatic change and unprecedented natural calamities in recent years) and the great socio-political crisis (manifesting in the ‘conflict of civilizations’ and the threat of terror strikes), have underscored the need to meld economic, environmental and social / political perspectives into a new definition of sustainable business. Each of these three crises reflects a fault line in each of the ‘three pillars’ respectively i.e., economic, environmental and social. On the plus side, there are tremendously important lessons to be learned from these crises and we aspire to distill some of them and pass the benefit of our learning to our clients.

Now, if you were to leave this aside for a moment and look at the history of Business Technology, you will observe that it has always quickly adapted itself to serve emerging business imperatives. When management thinkers talked about BPR, for instance, Business Technology moved quickly to support that trend. Some may even argue that packaged ERP software is what drove the genesis of BPR, but that’s a moot point. So this is nothing new either — the fact that technology trends support and drive business trends. That’s technology’s job!

To summarize, what we’re saying is: (a) businesses will start thinking about sustainability in terms of a more holistic and multi-dimensional definition as compared to traditional management thinking, and (b) technology will do its job, as it always does, which is to support business in envisioning and planning its future: in this case, a sustainable future. This is somewhat new stuff … in the sense that we don’t know of too many management professionals out there today addressing the issue of Sustainable Business Technology as an enabler to, if not the driver of, the Sustainable Business Transformation journey. It is new but not all invented by us, as you can see from the number of references we make to other sources on this topic. We are only bringing our unique perspective on this, through our own ideation.

Long answer, but hopefully it clarifies the issue regarding what’s new and what’s not and why what we’re talking about here is a bit different.

The next post in this series will deal with what we mean by being ‘social relevant, environmentally responsive and economically viable’ and why these are important goals for businesses seeking a path to prosperity.

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