Sustainability and HBS: Leader or Follower?

So you thought Green Week was over, but the issue of sustainability is an ongoing concern-one that requires a collaborative effort by business, government, the social sector, and individuals. Although we often hear the word “sustainability” tossed around, the formal definition on Wikipedia describes it as “an attempt to provide the best outcomes for the human and natural environments both now and into the indefinite future.” Upon first glance, the Harvard Business School seems to be quite forward thinking on the issue. I remember when I first visited the campus, my husband was enamored with the solar panels generating electricity on the roof of Shad. The numerous recycling receptacles throughout the hallways, dining facilities and classrooms were prominent. Once we moved into Soldiers Field Park, we received a blue recycling bag to collect recyclables to periodically drop off just outside the building. Even recently, we were given a new energy efficient light bulb from the Green Living representatives. In a variety of classes, issues of sustainability in the business sector have come up, and as future business leaders we will have to make important decisions that will impact our environment, economy, and citizens. So while we see and talk a lot about sustainability here, there are many moving parts and a general lack of clarity and vision regarding what HBS, in totality, is really doing to prepare us to be leaders in the Sustainability Age.

The Graduate Green Living group is one I have had a lot of interaction with through our on-campus housing, but they are only one of many groups working independently on sustainability issues at HBS. Student organizations are also very active, including the Business & Environment Club, Social Enterprise Club, Business Industry & Government and even the Student Association. The activity does not end with students: the HBS staff has been extremely active in the space over the past few years through the Operations Sustainability Program (which includes the Operations Green Team); many faculty have been quite active in the space, writing cases, leading field studies and even developing classes specific to this issue (case in point: the Business and the Environment class from Term 1). While it’s wonderful that so many groups are working toward this goal of making HBS the center for leadership on the issue of sustainability, it can result in lack of communication and duplication of efforts. Increasingly prospective students, alumni, and the business community overall want to know what HBS is doing and how it can do more, but that can become increasingly difficult given the fragmented nature of the current approach and the general lack of direction and leadership.

“I see the issue of sustainability and its impact on both the private and public sector in the same way as I saw the impact of the commercialization of the Internet in the early 90’s. Having to deal with the Internet profoundly impacted what it meant to be a successful leader in an organization, obsolescing older management practices and creating new ones. Regardless of whatever type of persuasions a person might have, the fact is the issue of sustainability is having, and will continue to have, a similar impact on leadership practices globally. In much the same way that HBS tried to be the thought leader in the Age of the Internet, I believe it is imperative that HBS also be the thought and action leader in the Age of Sustainability. While there are certainly financial benefits from this leadership (both in terms of new revenue opportunities and cost-savings), I think the real benefit is from ensuring that HBS continues to retain its relevancy as the preeminent institution for the development of leaders in the world.” -Marcus Osborne, Student Association (OC)

A current initiative being proposed by the partnered student groups would result in an overarching strategic focus with better coordination of activities. The results would include reduced costs, improved results, and establishing Harvard Business School as a leader and model in the Age of Sustainability. The program would focus on four key elements: Academic, Internal Communications, External Communications and Operations. The academic imperative would include creating more cases on issues of sustainability, developing and encouraging more field studies, and encouraging faculty research and dialogue. Additionally, more collaboration with other Harvard Schools, such as the Kennedy School of Government, and more discussion on sustainability in the executive education programs would be valuable. External communications initiatives might include coordinated communications to share sustainability progress with alumni, the business sector, and partners. They could further be used to influence the investment policy of the endowment and for sharing best practices. Internally, communications would include guest speakers, conferences, and awareness programs. Orientation and career development would also be important avenues. Daily operations should continue to be a leader through decreased energy consumption, recycling and waste reduction, and fair labor practices, and the school should promote operation’s successes as a model for organizations around the globe (lest we forget that on any given weekday HBS has more people working and learning on its campus than work at the White House or any Fortune 500 company’s headquarters).

I am proud to be at a school that takes the issue of sustainability to heart and has helped raise awareness among many of its students and stakeholders. Hopefully, as we move forward we can develop a more comprehensive approach that takes sustainability to the next level and serves as a model for other schools and businesses.

Photos: Please refer to Sustainability poll graphic in word document

April 30, 2007
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