Book Review

Organizational Change for Corporate Sustainability, (2003, London and New York: Routledge Publishers). Written by: Dexter Dunphy, Andrew Griffiths, Suzanne Benn

Reviewed by: Ryan Whisnant, December 2007

Are corporations more than just vehicles for generating profits? In Organizational Change for Corporate Sustainability Dunphy, Griffiths, and Benn tackle these questions and develop a compelling story for movement toward what they call the “sustaining corporation”.

The book begins by providing a brief examination of the corporation, and opens the debate about its role in society. Following a brief history and discussion of sustainability, the impacts that “business as usual” is having on the world is covered, offering data similar to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The authors identify five key issues that are currently driving corporations to become more responsible global citizens: poverty, distribution of wealth, effects of globalization and industrialization, an increasingly communicative global audience, and new market and legislative moves by governments to encourage accountability and sustainability.

The prevailing theme throughout the book is the importance of recognizing two kinds of sustainability: human and ecological. Although they are treated separately, the authors emphasize that “environmental sustainability and human sustainability are seen as inextricably linked”. The core offering of the book is the six-stage model that corporations progress through as they become more sustainable:

Rejection: these corporations believe that all resources are there for exploitation, demonstrating no commitment to either ecological or their own human resources. They are dismissive of motives other than profit maximization.

Non-Responsiveness: although not actively antagonistic, these corporations ignore environmental consequences and community concerns as a result of ignorance or lack of awareness.

Compliance: in this phase, corporations begin to move into a stance that provides some stewardship of ecological and human resources. However, the motives are based solely on risk mitigation, reacting to regulation and attempting to meet minimum standards. (Note: recent years have seen the development of voluntary compliance and co-regulation.)

Efficiency: corporations recognize the value in sustainable practices, purely from a cost-saving perspective. This phase includes activities such as waste minimization and closed-loop processes.

Strategic Proactivity: building on the gains in efficiency, corporations begin to integrate sustainable practice into their core strategy. Sustainability is viewed as providing competitive advantage, and is ultimately driven by profit maximization in the long-term.

Sustaining Corporation: at this level, sustainability is an integral part of the corporate culture. Companies still pursue their business objectives, but they actively seek to contribute to the viability of both ecological and human systems.

Each phase is presented in an appendix providing attitudinal focus areas and key characteristics. The authors also provide a matrix charting the phases for human and ecological sustainability in order to help corporations to determine their current state.

Moving through the phases of corporate sustainability can occur either incrementally or transformationally. Since incremental change has been the dominant type of change program for the past century, a brief history is offered including discussion of its roots in organizational development (OD) and the impacts of socio-technical systems (STS) and Total Quality Management (TQM). Incremental change provides well developed strategies for making systematic, slow-paced interventions. The authors weigh the benefits of incremental change against its pitfalls, which could include falling behind in dynamic markets, lack of connection to performance, and overkill on change programs. The authors specifically address the major issues moving between each of the six phases incrementally and close with a list of steps for implementing incremental change.

Whereas incremental change may not allow companies to react to “large-scale, disruptive, and unpredictable events,” transformational change seeks to “change the mind sets, cultures, structures, and products [in a corporation] in radical ways”. For many organizations, this may become the only choice for moving to sustainability due to mounting public pressure or unpredicted shifts in the market or physical environment (e.g., a weather event). The authors provide step-by-step guidance for creating a successful transformational change program. However, ultimately they prescribe an “ambidextrous” approach combining both incremental and transformational change.

The book concludes with a discussion of the leaders and change agents who will drive the transition to sustainability within corporations. The final chapter outlines the characteristics of effective change agents including “clarity of vision, knowledge of what we wish to change and the skills to implement the changes”, as well as maturity and wisdom; it becomes clear that these are the characteristics of any good leader. As change agents, these leaders’ roles are to redefine the corporate culture by creating a new ”framework of meaning to interpret the stream of events people encounter in the workplace”. The authors discuss the difficulty of being a change agent- that it’s much easier to accept things as they are, that it’s scary to change, and that it can be a frustratingly long process. They also lay out the steps to achieving “change-agent mastery”, in addition to the specific skills of diagnosis, communication, managing relationships, and managing projects. Short descriptions of typical internal and external change agent roles offer the reader a chance to identify what role they might be in or choose to take on. The book wraps up by outlining in list form the agenda for achieving ecological and internal/external human sustainability within the corporation.

This book is at its core about the process of change, and many of its ideas can be generalized or applied to other change situations. However, the authors seem to have a firm grasp of the history, context, and current state of the sustainability debate; therefore the reading does serve as a decent interdisciplinary primer on sustainability, touching on governance, technology, business strategy, and organizational psychology. Although the book is intended to provide a plan-of-action that can be applied within a corporate change setting and does provide useful tools for taking action including point-by-point lists and matrices, it is actually quite readable for anyone seeking to learn more about the progression of sustainability within corporations. With all the “doom and gloom” and lack of coherent vision regarding sustainability, this book provides real value on three counts: 1) it offers hope, 2) more importantly, it offers a compelling picture of specifically what that hopeful world will look like (for corporations), and 3) it provides a plan (at least conceptually) for getting there. The argument that corporations can be a major part of the sustainability solution is supported by several good case studies, with examples at each phase of the process, up through the sustaining corporation (e.g., Patagonia).

In general, I find no glaring deficiencies in the book. If there is one weakness, it is that the authors are attempting to do too much in one book. The issue of sustainability is enormous, and one could probably write an entire textbook on each phase outlined in the book. It does offer a practical approach to corporate change for sustainability, but only at a fairly high level. The task involved with actually implementing the programs described would be tremendous, and would require multiple experts for the various roles required. That said, the authors do acknowledge the complexity of the task and that the plan of action put forth in the book is inherently an oversimplification. In terms of organization, the ideas in the book are well structured at the chapter level; however within some chapters I felt that the topics were jumping from here to there, and that certain points were belabored a bit. One criticism could be that the authors are overly optimistic about the future and their vision for the sustaining corporation is based on virtually no current evidence; they admit that the sustaining corporation effectively does not exist today. But the whole point of having a vision is that it doesn’t have to be based on current reality, and I applaud the authors for creating a vision for the corporation of the future.

Organizational Change for Corporate Sustainability is an important read for anyone interested in the inner workings of how corporations evolve culturally on a path towards sustainability. With all the focus given to technical and policy solutions, this book provides a critical look at the corporate cultural change required for adoption of these solutions. It is especially relevant for those interested in the mechanisms for cultural change or seeking to work with companies on becoming more sustainable. The frameworks provide a high-level starting point for taking action and engaging with companies on sustainability issues, and the vision for the sustaining corporation provides a compelling goal to move towards as we create the corporation of the future.


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