3573 A Training Program Creates Absorptive Capacity for Sustainable Innovations: Transforming Managerial Logic

Trudy Heller , Executive Education for the Environment, Swarthmore, PA
Full Papers
  • GIN2012 paper2.pdf (312.9 kB)
  • Justification of the paper: promoting sustainable industry management

    Purpose: convey a methodology for transforming mental maps of sustainable business mangers

    Theoretical framework: mental maps, absorptive capacity

    Results: previously skeptical managers see opportunity for sustainable business


     `The business case for sustainability has been argued many times. Proponents suggest that existing businesses can profit by greening their products and operations. This is a modest proposal that invites businesses to tweak their current operations and product designs for a more environmentally aware consumer.

    The sustainability case for business, on the other hand, argues that vast opportunity is available to businesses that understand the sustainability landscape, and align their businesses with an accurate mental map of that terrain. A more radical agenda, this requires rethinking business models, reinventing the meaning and value of consumption, getting rid of the very concept of waste, and developing a global citizen's perspective on business.

    Futurist Peter Schwartz asserts that the mental map of your terrain matters. He illustrates this point with a story about explorers who believed that California was an island. They arrived with disassembled boats that they loaded onto the backs of donkeys before trekking inland. While adding greatly to the baggage and difficulty of their mountainous journey, the boats were considered essential because the explorers expected to reach water on the other side of the "island" of California.

    Managers trained in traditional business schools and industrial organizations arrive on the job with mental maps that mislead and handicap them in facing the challenges of the 21stcentury green economy. Outdated assumptions no longer map on to the current business landscape. The mismatch between mental map and the terrain it purports to represent is apparent in familiar complaints: "I was never interested in sustainability, and didn't see the connection to business." "Environmental stewardship costs too much." "Regulations will put us out of business." 

    Once a mental map is established, changing it is neither straightforward nor easy. "Confirming perception" allows us to see only evidence that supports already established beliefs. Traditional viewpoints are thus "over learned". Well worn perspectives become assumptions about the world that are taken for granted, and we no longer realize how they are influencing our guiding principles. 

    Updating a mental map requires us, first, to raise awareness of the assumptions we use to filter information. When we start from "where we are", we create capacity to absorb new information. New ideas can then be tethered to the old. 

    This presentation is a guide to upgrading four fundamental business beliefs. These beliefs are widespread not just in B-schools, but in the broader United States and Western, developed country cultures.  Revised understandings provide a more accurate and useful mental map for managing business consistent with today's sustainability imperative (Lubin & Esty 2010). Revised mental maps create absorptive capacity for sustainable business innovations. The presentation is based on the author's experience leading hundreds of business and environmental professionals from skepticism to enthusiasm for sustainable business over the past decade.