The Age of Sustainability

January 13, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Lalida photoWell, I’ve been a Chief Knowledge Officer. Perhaps I could morph myself into a Chief Sustainability Officer – especially given Patrick Lambe’s rather depressing survey results, which revealed how much organisations invest in their KM initiatives (and Australia doesn’t come out smelling very rosy). So if the life of a knowledge manager is “nasty, brutish and short”, then you could turn your attention to organisational efforts in sustainability (which must surely require some KM input).

Forbes recently highlighted how the new role of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) is emerging within the corporate echelons. The CSO’s role is to balance the difficulties and opportunities created by climate change. The article suggests that as the world cooks, the CSO might become the most influential corporate position as organisations struggle to identify and embrace the business opportunities that present themselves. So green is a growth opportunity and those that snap up the opportunities will survive in an increasingly complex and environmentally-troubled world.

A sustainable approach to business can produce a healthier bottom line. Better resource use and energy management can lower operational and manufacturing costs and reduce pollution and waste; “green” products, services and technologies can increase revenue; critical resources can be conserved; and a corporation can be seen as environmentally responsible, which boosts the brand and results in positive PR opportunities. A further benefit of course is that pursuing sustainability goals can attract employees who wish to “make a difference”.

Since the 1960s, there has been an organisational role that focuses on the environment but from the perspective of regulatory compliance. The focus is now shifting to this role feeding into strategy, product design, marketing and corporate communications. The CSO is now the bridge between the environment and business. What was once good for the environment was considered bad for business. The CSO role can bridge these opposing forces perhaps.

And what might be the competencies the CSO needs? According to Forbes:

  • someone who sees the “big picture” and the long-range trajectory
  • a strategist with the ability to rethink organisational structure and recognise levers for change
  • someone who’s not afraid to “rock the boat”
  • a charismatic person
  • a leader with the ability to create consensus and drive change
  • needs to be involved in integrating environmental thinking into every layer of the organisation
  • needs to create awareness that the role is about creating a better way of doing business, a more sustainable way of doing business
  • facilitator and enabler
  • someone who is not easily intimidated by corporate bureaucracy
  • and I’ll add my own one – a fox terrier who bites the corporate ankle, thrashes around and doesn’t let go until mission accomplished.

Mmmm….so far, sounds a lot like the competencies a KM person requires. A 2006 survey of 25 US companies found that 15 of the CSOs are vice-presidents; 6 are directors; and women fill 9 of the chief environmental positions. But like KM, the position the CSO occupies in the corporate hierarchy says a lot about the value that organisation places on environmental issues.

I seem to remember a lot of CKOs in the early 2000s (myself included) but the KM world is less populated with CKOs these days. So the CSO is probably the new CKO. If the CSO position is a top role in the hierarchy, then there’s some hope of influencing a corporation’s sustainability journey (as with the CKO and the “KM journey”). The CSO will be able to survey the whole corporate ecosystem and identify patterns etc.

I’ll be interested to see if the CSO role becomes popular in Australia. A quick search of Seek didn’t throw up anything and ferreting around Google only showed CSOs in US companies, like Dupont. If you know of any Australian positions, leave a comment.

And what qualifications will a CSO need – legal, government background, science, research and development? The experiences of some US companies sounds a lot like KM again – Owens Corning Inc plucked their CSO from its research department, whilst Home Depot found their CSO lurking in merchandising. KM people come from disparate backgrounds too and are often plucked from the ranks of a company to fill a KM position (and after a stint in KM in my experience, these people are often all too happy to go back from whence they came!). Perhaps we’ll start to see University courses like Graduate Certificate in Sustainability as we see now with KM. There are already educational institutions that offer an MBA in Sustainable Business or who offer a green MBA curriculum.

Well, my career in KM hasn’t been “nasty, brutish and short” since I’ve been in the field since around 1996 or so. But a CSO role sure looks interesting!


Entry filed under: Education, Education and Awareness, Environment, Knowledge Management, Sustainability.

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