Next Steps — For The Intersection of Business and Sustainability in Business Schools
How does the integration of business and sustainability play out in business schools and in business education? How can we advance our collective intentions in this regard? Expanding and deepening our ideas about this can be helpful.
The Epistemological Basis
When one speaks of integrating sustainability with business in education or in corporate actions, it is helpful to spend some time looking at the underlying epistemological frameworks.
Business is based on a dualistic view of the world. This is the lens or filter through which an individual knows or makes sense of the world. There is business and its objectives and then there is everything else.
The idea of business growth, business value and roi is based on this dualistic view. We are still trying to reduce and fit everything in the world into a profit and loss statement. What is left out is the “other,” externalized — the other side of the duality. This provides license not to care about what is externalized. The world is viewed as resources to be made use of in an instrumental manner — what can be of value to the business. These include human resources — employees and nature.
Doing business has traditionally been based on a mechanistic view of the world which differs from the character of sustainability. We tend to put things in separate silos. Aristotle started this trend many years ago. Newton’s work led to the idea that the world was a clock which one has to disassemble in order to understand it.
Of importance to our discussion here, business also appears to be based on an experiential way of knowing.
Business school is primarily cognitive. Though we read cases in business school which reflect the experience of others, the process of absorption of cases is a cognitive one. In some curriculum, there are Practicums which are experiential. Beyond that, the learning process utilizes lectures which are cognitive ways of knowing.
Sustainability is integrative, integral. It is based on a world viewed as being mutual, reciprocal and interdependent where humans and their endeavors are seen as an integral part of the Ecological system. This is more of what has been an indigenous view of the world.
The Current Drama
The education system as the purveyor of various epistemological frameworks (though still mostly cognitive) is one domain where this overall drama of business and sustainability is being played out. There are now business schools, organization psychology programs, sustainability schools and even the beginnings of business-sustainability programs. Each embodies a unique epistemological framework from which they act.
A deeper drama is reflected in the societal projection of its dualistic way of thinking onto the business environment and by proxy onto business schools. Since it is how we make sense of the world, it is not surprising when we project this schema onto everything in our surroundings, including race and religion. We then create structures which reify this projection and hold it in place.
Moving beyond this dualistic projection becomes another challenge in the integration of business and sustainability in business school.
A Deeper Integration
Speaking about the integration of business and sustainability is a useful handle in approaching this challenge. However, Claire Haase in her graduate thesis from The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, speaks of the intersection of business and sustainability. (Haase, 2022) In this view, the elements of sustainability encompassing all of the UN SDGs, e.g. ecological restoration, climate justice, the welfare of surrounding communities can have a multiplier effect in enhancing the flourishing of business in a broader sense.
In the same vein, the intersection of business education and sustainability has a multiplier effect in producing “a more rounded view of what managers are supposed to do,” (Haase, 2022) thereby creating managers more equipped to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. Course work that deals with issues of social impact covering challenges like income inequality or food security would support this. (Haase, 2022)
All of this when applied to the concept of integration would imbue it with added qualities. The more intense and dynamic connections that result would also reflect ongoing relationships at an epistemological level.
So when one speaks of business and sustainability, my question becomes: is there a potential marriage to be had here and what would that look like?
Developing a Meta-Integral View
Can one speak of engaging with the Business framework and then engaging with the Sustainability framework with a fluid movement between the two? Daniel Wahl suggests a helpful process based on the approach set out by Goethe in Goethian Science (Wahl, 2005)
Wahl suggests that this fluid movement can be done with science and ecology. In practice, this entails moving fluidly back and forth between a dualistic stance where the human as observer is seen as outside the system to an integral stance where the person is recognized as being a participant within the system. At this level, I believe this is indeed possible. At a higher meta level, both ways of knowing are “held” at the same time within a larger Integral framework.
Can this larger Integral way of knowing be extended to a business school environment? What would it look like as applied to business-sustainability-ecology? Here, intersection becomes a portal to a potentially new educational experience.
Experience as a Way of Knowing
One avenue worth pursuing in this endeavor is the realm of experience.
Both business and ecology — a key component of a sustainable view have a presence in the experiential way of knowing. The typical Harvard Business School case enables the reader to learn from the experience of others which is the experiential part of one’s otherwise cognitive effort of understanding. One who has been in business does experience and learn first hand.
Learning from nature can be experiential from a human point of view if one takes the time to do so. Goethean Science is an example of this (Wahl, 2005). A strong argument can be made that nature experiences and learns though not in the way a human might. Indigenous society “knew” from the experience of being in nature.
In moving beyond integration, one moves beyond the resulting juxtaposition which can often become limited such as incorporating an ESG framework in an organization or adopting net-zero goals where the epistemological framework does not necessarily change. The dualistic world is perpetuated. One continues to live in the old paradigm of financial value to the business where everything else is the “other” — an add-on to the business enterprise.
Terms like intersection or melding or some other helpful term (all of which are metaphors) might connote a deeper, more intensive symbiotic connection whereby success in an ecological framework in turn produces success in a business framework and visa versa. In this realm, there is mutual enhancement leading to a result where the entire ecosystem flourishes. As in an ecosystem in nature, the business gives more to the surrounding natural and human ecosystem than it takes.
This is a multiplicative relationship as opposed to the existing either-or way of seeing the interaction between the two areas of business and sustainability.
What might this look like?
Those few companies that are adopting into their strategy and operations a triple or quadruple bottom line are reflections of this. The different objectives, e.g. commerce, environment, community rather than being detractors from one another have the potential of being enhancers, thus having a multiplying effect. I would hope that as part of this strategy, there is a recognition and exploration of the different ways of knowing existing at the points of intersection.
And, what of that which is being played out at an experiential level at the intersection of business and ecology? What might this look like?
One thing that comes to mind is the new Apple Headquarters which is surrounded by nature with walking paths and many ways of physical-sensory access. One can experience both doing business and living in nature at the same time. Ecotourism ventures are another example.
I think that this brings us to an entry way into a Wonderland where like Alice, we can begin to wonder what might go on in this realm of intersection or melding.
In the spirit of leaving the reader with an experience, I am providing several images from two poems by William Blake. Perhaps, they convey what might happen in this realm of experience.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to
man as it is, Infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow
chinks of his cavern.
From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
From Auguries of Innocence