A new model for transforming business into sustainable enterprise — Maurizio Zollo

MIT Sloan Visiting Prof. Maurizio Zollo

A few years ago, thought leaders and experts around the world began to meet to discuss the slow pace at which business seems to progress in tackling the challenges of innovation and change towards ideal models of sustainable enterprise. The result of those discussions was the launch of a unique initiative called GOLDEN for Sustainability (“Global Organizational Learning and Development Network”). Never before has such a multi-disciplinary, large-scale research project been undertaken in the management domain.

Since GOLDEN’s launch, experts from all business fields including, innovation, organization, strategy, marketing, accounting, human resources, business ethics and operations have been working with environmental scientists and social scientists (economists, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists etc.) to engage corporations in field experiments and clinical research. The goal is to understand how to improve and speed up the pace of business transformation to sustainable enterprises.

Now, we’re globally piloting and developing new projects with companies including Microsoft, Telecom Italia, Enel, Santam, Woolworth and Unicredit and academic research centers like MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI). And we recently won a €700,000 grant from the Italian Ministry of Research in collaboration with MIT’s Sustainability Initiative.

Our strategy is based on the understanding that academic researchers’ relationships with corporations are historically problematic and often fall short of their potential. Corporate leaders complain that academic research is often irrelevant, overly abstract, time consuming and difficult to operationalize. Some researchers contend that corporations don’t allow sufficient access for meaningful observation, discussion and development of insight to occur.

To address these limitations, GOLDEN uses a unique model that focuses on an “engaged scholarship” approach and a ”big science” research design. Engaged scholarship means that we emphasize the meaningful participation of corporate managers in each stage of the research process to ensure that wisdom and knowledge of both academia and business is leveraged for creative idea generation and rigorous testing. Big science is a technical term for science-based investigations of unusual scale and cross-disciplinary nature. To the best of our knowledge, management science has never before been harnessed in this way to address integrated issues of economic, social and environmental sustainability.

GOLDEN seeks to achieve its ambitious goals through archival data collection, clinical research, experimental labs and multi-level simulations. It aims to create the first global observatory of sustainability initiatives available for public use based on publicly available information. This will be supplemented with clinical research for large-scale scientific analysis of anonymous data and confidential benchmarked company reports.

As for experiments, those are designed to investigate the effectiveness of sustainability-driven innovation and change interventions and to identify enabling and hindering factors. The multi-level simulations and modeling will leverage both data and experiments to develop, test and refine models for scientific, business strategy and policy-making purposes. This integration of data, experiments and simulations creates a powerful and quite unique system of inquiry.

How do we work with specific groups? A good example is MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI), which recently joined our network. Through the Climate CoLab, CCI asks a community of over 6,000 members from around the world to submit proposals to tackle climate change problems. GOLDEN will then conduct experiments on the application of some of the best proposed solutions and will provide feedback on the results to the community. A powerful, virtuous cycle of idea generation and pilot testing can be generated to the benefit of all concerned.

As for corporations, our engagement focuses on the experimentation required to tackle their most strategically relevant sustainability-related challenge. These can vary quite a bit. In the case of Unicredit, its question involves how the effectiveness of banking processes can be enhanced by combining total quality interventions with sustainability principles.

With other organizations, GOLDEN is developing experimental research designs to address sustainable supply chain management questions, or the integration of sustainability metrics deep inside capital budgeting, resource allocation, management control, auditing and reporting processes.

We’re also looking at the huge challenge of supporting the evolution of sustainability mindset, values and beliefs throughout the whole organization: How do you actually change the way managers think about their own company’s role and responsibility in society and, consequently, about the social and environmental impacts of their own decisions? We’re looking at different learning approaches, with the help of neuroscientists and their brain imaging technology, to see what happens in the brain during sustainability-related decision-making process.

The newest, and perhaps most ambitious, part of GOLDEN’s experimental work relates to our Ecosystems Labs. Here experimentation focuses on ways to change not just business behavior, but collective behavior of all the key actors in a given eco-system. In terms of geographic boundaries, GOLDEN is exploring with the World Bank Institute the possibility of applying experimental designs to some of their sustainability-related capacity development interventions at the country and regional levels.

So far, our initiative has been very well received. Over $1.2 million was committed to GOLDEN research in 2012, adding to a total of about $3 million over three years. However, the program is still at an early stage. We’re currently piloting multiple research methodologies, refining our management oriented research approach to meet both the highest academic standards and the most challenging business problems related to the creation of the sustainable enterprise in a sustainable socio-economic system.

Prof. Maurizio Zollo is visiting MIT Sloan from Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, and is academic director of the GOLDEN Initiative. He is also president of the European Academy of Management.

2 thoughts on “A new model for transforming business into sustainable enterprise — Maurizio Zollo

  1. I have always contended that Sustainable Development( SD) is a business model,not an environmental or social model. It is unfortunate that Sustainable development was explained as having three pillars, Business growth, environmental Stewardship and Social Responsibility which invited environmentalists and social scientists to focus on their pet projects.
    I ,in no way, suggest that we neglect environmental and social aspects of SD because by definition, a sustainable enterprise will automatically be socially and environmentally responsible.
    The ill advised separation of SD pillars was enabled by the majority of practitioners coming from the environmental and social fields
    A lot of companies claiming adoption and practice of SD has the whole program managed by the Environmental,Health and Safety group( EH&S) or a sustainability officer who comes from EH&S with no or little involvement by the business
    Until SD becomes a business model and engages every employee and department and the sustainability report is integrated into the annual business report, all so called sustainable initiatives are cosmetic at best.
    I am working on a concept that i call Sustainable Development Index(SDI) where i select business, environmental and social metrics that are not weighed equally as the Triple Bottom Line suggested initially. I rank companies out of a hundred making it easy for a laymen to compare companies.
    I invite comments , discussion and potential collaboration
    I would appreciate getting Dr, Zollo’s contact info

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