A Typology of Meaning

A Typology of Meaning

Chapter by Wayne Visser

Extract from Making a Difference

Chapter Objectives

  1. To define what is meant by “typology of meaning”;
  2. To introduce a typology of meaning for sustainability managers, including its four proposed types and key features;
  3. To use the interview data to illustrate the applicability and workings of the typology; and
  4. To conclude with a summary of the possible management implications of the typology of meaning for sustainability managers.

For the purposes of my research, “typology of meaning” refers to the classification of typical sources of meaning derived by sustainability managers in their work into four types, each associated with distinctive roles within the organisation.

Introducing the Typology

The typology grew out of a realisation that four of the six sources of meaning in the work of sustainability managers were strongly related to organisational roles. The typology  was included in the Sustainability Managers Research Model (Figure 4.1) that was presented to participants in the Phase 3 follow up interviews and received positive feedback. This section will introduce the four types that I identified, as well as the dynamics of the model.

The Four Types

We can begin by identifying the four types: Expert, Facilitator, Catalyst and Activist. Each type represents a constellation of meaning. It is expected that any individual sustainability manager will embody elements of all of these types, but that the relative influence of each category will differ per individual. Hence, the dominant type can be thought of as a centre of gravity for meaning in the sustainability managers’ work, i.e. the mode of operating in which they feel most comfortable, fulfilled or satisfied.

We can visually represent the idea that people derive meaning from a variety of sources by showing the types as boxes in four quadrants. The relative size of the shaded boxes simply indicates how much meaning the individual derives from each type. Hence, in the case depicted, the individual is perfectly balanced, showing equal preference for each of the types.

An Expert derives relatively more meaning from the constellation of characteristics associated with this type.

There is considerable overlap between the Expert type and specialist input as a source of meaning in work (Chapter 6). Therefore, rather than repeat the illustrative quotations from the interviews in full, Table 8.1 presents typical statements and phrases indicative of Expert type sustainability managers.

These quotes illustrate some of the themes that characterise the way Experts find their meaning, namely by engaging with projects or systems, giving expert input, focusing on technical excellence, seeking uniqueness through specialisation, and pride in problem solving abilities.

Characteristics of the Expert

  • Aligned to specialist input as a source of meaning;
  • Concerned mainly with the individual level;
  • Focuses on personal development;
  • Derives satisfaction from delivering quality through their work;
  • Skills are mainly technical in nature;
  • Emphasise specialist knowledge; and
  • The legacy they wish to leave behind is successful work projects …

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Visser, W. (2008) A Typology of Meaning, In Making a Difference: Purpose-Inspired Leadership for Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility, Saarbrücken: VDM, 218-237.

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Policy Dialogue on Sustainability

Policy Dialogue on Sustainability:

A New Model – The Case of the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change

Paper by Wayne Visser and Margaret Adey

Abstract

Dialogue is often loosely touted as an approach to tackling sustainability challenges and resolving sustainability dilemmas or conflicts, especially through the process of stakeholder dialogue. However, the literature is more sparse on the role of companies in pro-active, pro-sustainability policy dialogue, as opposed to the practice of corporate lobbying against proposed sustainability regulation. This paper seeks to address this gap by analysing a particularly innovative case study, The Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change. The paper follows the structure of introducing the concept of dialogue, reviewing the literature on sustainability dialogue and describing and evaluating the case study.

Dialogue

Ellinor and Gerard (1998) describe dialogue as a foundational communication process that assists in creating environments of high trust and openness, with reflective and generative capacities.

The word dialogue stems from the Greek roots ‘dia’ (i.e. through) and ‘logos’ (i.e. word or meaning). Although relatively new to modern-day organisational practices, dialogue can be traced to ancient Greece, as described in The Dialogues of Plato (1898) and to forms of communication used by Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. Aspects of dialogue can also be found within Quaker spiritual and business practice, in counselling models such as those of Carl Rogers, as part of certain Eastern meditation practices, and in the philosophical works of Martin Buber (Gerard & Teurfs, 1996).

There are numerous approaches to dialogue. For example, Slotte and Hämäläinen (2003) contrast the Bohmian dialogue, as developed by physicist David Bohm (1996) and championed by Senge (1990) and Isaacs (1999), with Socratic dialogue, inspired by Socrates but developed as specific approach by the philosopher and educationalist Leonard Nelson (1965). The Center for Creative Learning (1996) identify a broader range of perspectives on dialogue, based on the work of Chris Argyris (around organisational learning), David Bohm (around developing shared meaning), David Johnson and Roger Johnson (around cooperation and productivity), Jack Mezirow (around the conditions for rational discourse), and Paulo Freire (around educational transformation).

Among its more modern organisational applications, dialogue can form an integral part of continuous learning, diversity management, conflict exploration, problem solving, leadership development, team-building, organizational planning and culture change (Ellinor and Gerard 1998). Some of these applications adopt a very specific approach and set of techniques, such as the Decision Structuring dialogue method, which uses an agenda or topic as a starting point, focusing both on content (i.e. the issue under discussion) and process (i.e. the way the issue is discussed) and following a series of prescribed steps led by a facilitator (Slotte and Hämäläinen 2003).

Dialogue and sustainability

It would appear, however, that little or none of these perspectives and approaches on dialogue have been applied directly by sustainability scholars. Rather, dialogue most often appears in the sustainability literature in a looser sense as “stakeholder dialogue”, incorporating business ethics (Garcia-Marza, 2005), corporate social responsibility (Jonker & Nijhof, 2006), corporate accountability (Rasche & Esser, 2006) and environmental management (Perret, 2003) …

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-age-of-responsibility”]Page[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.cpsl.cam.ac.uk”]Link[/button] Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (website)

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Visser, W. & Adey, M. (2007) Policy Dialogue on Sustainability: A New Model – The Case of the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership Paper Series, No. 3.

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Sustainability Innovation

Sustainability Innovation:

Mapping the Territory

Paper by Michael Blowfield, Wayne Visser & Finbarr Livesey

Abstract

Innovation is a well-studied area of business behaviour, and is increasingly seen as a crucial element in the private sector’s responses to the challenges of sustainability.  However, what exactly is meant by innovation in a sustainability context is not very clear.  This paper makes the case for a more reflexive and structured approach to understanding innovation for sustainability in order to understand what it shares in common with innovation more broadly, where it is unique, what the gaps are in our current knowledge, and what might be the consequence of these gaps.  In building this understanding, we draw on theoretical and empirical studies, normative and non-normative approaches, and descriptive and instrumental analyses.  We employ a framework that distinguishes between the enablers of sustainability innovation (SI), the different types of agent that influence innovation for sustainability and the intra-organisational processes that take place (especially within companies).

Introduction

Increasingly, business is referred to as an essential element in meeting the challenges of sustainability: not only to amend its behaviour so as to reduce negative impacts, but also to use its strengths to overcome barriers more effectively than other sectors of society are able to do.  Innovation is one such area of perceived business strength, and now business and government are encouraged to think in terms of sustainability innovation to meet such demands as green technology, energy efficiency and social enterprise.  It is often claimed that the challenges of sustainability require different approaches to (and perhaps new models of) business.  Yet there has been little rigorous analysis of if and how sustainability requires new ways of thinking about innovation.  The main purpose of this  paper is to examine what we know about sustainability as the determinant of a genuinely different form of innovation, and to set out a framework for a more reflexive and structured approach to sustainability innovation in future.

To understand if sustainability innovation (SI) differs from other models of innovation, let us first consider what innovation means.  When discussing whether innovation (in its broad sense) is qualitatively different from innovation applied for sustainability, it is important to have a clear sense of the boundary of the terms being used. One of the broadest definitions of innovation states that it is “… the successful exploitation of new ideas” (DTI 2003). Unsurprisingly, exploitation in this context has become synonymous with introduction to market and so this definition is one that presupposes a market-based assessment for the outcomes of the innovation process. The bias in most discussions of innovation towards a commercial, for-profit setting with a market mechanism for price signalling and managing distribution should be acknowledged. Equally, this may be where innovation for sustainability distinguishes itself from innovation more broadly.

In terms of market led or company-based innovation there has been an acknowledged shift in recent years towards more dynamic and networked models of innovation (Chesbrough 2003) away from old linear models. This is well described by Rothwell in his five generations of innovation models (Rothwell quoted in Tidd, Bessant et al. 2001).

None of the models of innovation, either descriptive or analytical, presuppose the set of goals which the process is trying to achieve. In that sense, there is no immediate difference between SI and innovation in its broadest sense. However, it is the context for sustainability that implies biases towards different types of innovation …

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Blowfield, M., Visser, W. & Livesey, F. (2007) Sustainability Innovation: Mapping the Territory, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership Paper Series, No. 2.

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Corporate Sustainability and the Individual

Corporate Sustainability and the Individual:

A Literature Review

Paper by Wayne Visser

Abstract

This paper introduces the literature and theories of corporate sustainability and how these have been applied at the level of the individual. It begins by defining corporate sustainability, reviewing the concept origins, demonstrating that it is an essentially contested concept (overlapping with related terms like corporate social responsibility, business ethics and corporate citizenship) and exploring some of the underlying principles. The paper then gives an overview of academic research that has been conducted on corporate sustainability generally and on the role of the individual in corporate sustainability in particular. In term of the latter, five themes are explored: the importance of values congruence of managers and employees with organisational values; the instrumental association between individual concern, knowledge and commitment and corporate social and environmental responsiveness; narrative accounts by sustainability managers of corporate “greening”; the role of sustainability managers as champions, entrepreneurs or agents of change in their organisations; and the application of psychology to understand individual responses to sustainability issues. Finally, conclusions are drawn.

Defining “Corporate Sustainability”

A Synthesis Definition

In this paper, I point out that corporate sustainability is a contested concept, which to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the author) draws from and overlaps with notions of sustainable development, corporate citizenship, corporate (social) responsibility, environmental management, business ethics and stakeholder management.

I have been guided in my own synthesis definition of corporate sustainability by the practitioner perspective that I often encountered (and adopted) in my work as a consultant in the field and which my research participants generally embraced, namely that we should focus on the essence of commonality among these terms, rather than (as viewed by them) the pedantic differences.

Perhaps less acknowledged in practice, but clear from the literature and my philosophical position, corporate sustainability is in no way an objective, scientific or neutral concept, but rather a normative construct, which always contains a set of implicit or explicit values.

Hence, for the purposes of this paper, I define corporate sustainability as a values-laden umbrella concept, which refers to the way in which the interface between business, society and the environment is managed.

Concept Origins

Corporate sustainability evolved as a derivation of the concept of sustainable development, which was first introduced by the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) and defined as “development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (43). The ideas behind sustainable development are much older, traceable at least back to the preservation and conservation movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, but the Brundtland definition quoted above marks the concept’s entry into the modern lexicon …

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Visser, W. (2007) Corporate Sustainability and the Individual: A Literature Review, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership Paper Series, No. 1.

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Five Corporate Sustainability Challenges That Remain Unmet

Five Corporate Sustainability Challenges That Remain Unmet

Article by Wayne Visser

There is no doubt that business is doing far more than ever before to tackle the sustainability challenge, for example by recognising its social responsibilities, reducing its environmental impacts, guarding against ethical compromises, making its governance more transparent and being more accountable to its stakeholders. Evidence appears in plain sight: a plethora of voluntary codes, management systems by the truckload, volumes of sustainability reports, socially responsible indices and funds, and an increasingly conscious business press.

All well and good, but – and this is a “but” that could prove to be a showstopper – all of this activity has failed to turn the tide on some of the most crucial inhibitors to sustainable development: ecological decline, poverty, greed, trust, and hope. Without significant progress on these five issues, the corporate sustainability crusade is doomed. In this article, I present evidence of these gaps that still exist and propose the shifts that are needed to address them.

The Eco Gap

According to the World Resources Institute’s latest report, World Resources 2002-2004: Decisions for the Earth – Balance Voice and Power, one billion people depend on fish for protein, yet 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are over fished or fished at the biological limit. Some 350 million people are directly dependent on forests for their livelihoods, yet global forest cover has declined by 50 percent since pre-agricultural times. More than 40 percent of the world population live in water-stressed basins and 65 percent of global agricultural lands show soil degradation. This is not about saving cute fluffy animals or pretty flowers; this is the stuff of survival, which is the true meaning of sustainability.

The link back to business is obvious. It is our consumptive lifestyle, which companies are spending more than $446 billion annually to stimulate with advertising, a nine fold increase since 1950. And we aren’t showing any signs of slowing down; just the opposite in fact. Private consumption expenditure topped $20 trillion in 2000, a fourfold increase since 1960. Approximately 60 percent of this consumption is by only 12 percent of the world’s population, namely those living in North America and Western Europe. If we are seeing rapid environmental decline now, what is going to happen when 10 billion more people convert to the Western consumptive lifestyle? Something’s got to give.

The point is that, despite all the efforts of companies in shifting towards sustainable strategies, the numbers are all still headed in the wrong direction. And partly, we permit this to happen by allowing business to skate away with mere cosmetic makeovers when wholesale transformation is needed. For example, how many corporate sustainability reports disclose cumulative emissions? None. They report on annual emissions, which often lure the reader (and management) into a false sense of security. The figures may be declining from year to year, but if you fill a glass with polluted water at a slightly slower rate, ultimately it is still going to overflow.

If we are going to avoid hitting the wall of ecological thresholds, beyond which our life support  …

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Visser, W. (2004) Five Corporate Sustainability Challenges That Remain Unmet. Ethical Corporation, Issue 31, July.

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In Search of Business on the Elephant Trail

In Search of Business on the Elephant Trail

Article by Wayne Visser

In a previous article, I talked about the need for companies to “shapeshift” – to change their underlying natures – from embodying the characteristics of a lion (a competitive, selfish predator) to being more like an elephant (a more cooperative, harmonious creature). This analogy is based on the book I co-authored with Clem Sunter entitled Beyond Reasonable Greed: Why Sustainable Business is a Much Better Idea! (Human & Rousseau Tafelberg, 2002).

The question still remains, however: what does an elephant company look like? Like trying to convince caterpillars that going into a cocoon is a good idea, it helps if we can show the remarkable end result, namely a beautiful butterfly flying free. That is why, in this article, I want to highlight some companies that have already gone a long way down the elephant trail; businesses that have begun transforming themselves into agents of positive change in a world that desperately needs visionary leadership.

There are seven critical areas in which elephant companies distinguish themselves from lion companies, namely: values, vision, work, governance, relationships, communication and services. We will explore each of these themes briefly and give examples of those companies and business leaders that are blazing a trail for others to follow. So, hang on to your whiskers, the shapeshifting is about to begin.

Values: It’s in His Kiss

Values are exactly what they say they are – a reflection of the things we value. In a corporate context, they are not motherhood and apple pie statements in annual reports, or candyfloss principles framed on the boardroom wall. If you want to know what values a lion lives by, the answer lies not in his well-groomed mane or his charming smile; as the rock ‘n roll classic goes: “It’s in his kiss!” In other words, company values are betrayed by the way they behave.

Let’s take the issue of equity in the workplace as an example. It is a fact that the gap between rich and poor has widened in the past fifty years, with three billion people (half the world’s population) still living on less than $2 a day. And yet how many companies look to themselves as one of the sources of this growing inequity? How can it be otherwise when, in 1960, Chief Executives in the United States earned on average 40 times more than the average worker, but by 1990, this factor had gone up to 80 times and today is around 120. Taken to an extreme to illustrate the point, do you know that it would take one Haitian worker producing Disney clothes and dolls 166 years to earn as much as Disney president Michael Eisner earns in one day. In lion companies, the benefits always seem to trickle upwards to feed the fat cats.

By contrast, America’s popular ice-cream chain, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc, chose equity in the workplace was one of their fundamental values. Importantly, it didn’t stop with words, but rather translated into action. The inspirational founders of Ben & Jerry’s insisted on a top to bottom salary …

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Visser, W. (2003) In Search of Business on the Elephant Trail. Namaste, Volume 21, July/August.

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Can We Survive the Future

Can We Survive the Future:

Only if Business Shapeshifts from Lions into Elephants

Article by Wayne Visser

Rabbit Holes and Boiled Frogs

Being in business these days is a lot like falling down a rabbit hole. The latter, if you remember Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a chaotic and confusing place to be. All the tried and tested rules of the past don’t seem to work so well anymore. The formerly familiar environment keeps transforming itself into new, unrecognisable landscapes. Strange, distracting characters have a habit of popping up randomly and then suddenly disappearing. And the clear, rational perspectives that used to spell out solutions keep getting stretched, warped and turned on their head, like the reflected images in a house of weird mirrors.

To illustrate what I mean, the demigod once known as the shareholder has mutated into a multi-headed beast called the stakeholder. Accounting, the time-honoured introspective discipline of counting beans (or gold or money or shares), has been turned inside out and become nerve-racking accountability to the big wide world out there. And profitability, which used to be a trustworthy financial measure, has multiplied into a triple bottom line by blurring together economic, social and environmental performance.

To survive in this whirlwind of chaotic change, companies have become adept at rapidly adapting to dramatic changes. What business has been less skilled at doing is recognizing or responding to long-term effects of gradual changes. In this sense, it displays the classic “boiled frog syndrome”. If a frog is placed in boiling water, it immediately jumps out providing it is free to do so. However, if the water temperature is cool to begin with and then gradually increased, the frog fails to register any threat to its well-being and consequently allows itself to be literally boiled alive.

There are many examples of threats that could boil the corporate toads: creeping income inequality; the spread of HIV/AIDS; marginalisation of certain regions in the world economy; the cancerous burden of Third World debt; alienation of people with low incomes or no jobs; accelerating biodiversity loss; global climate change; rising chemical concentrations in the Earth’s water systems; disintegration of cultural identities; and the spread of violent crime among the youth, to mention but a few.

Trading in Fangs for Tusks

At the heart of all of these challenges is one of the most profound drivers for step-change in business and the world – sustainability. Sustainability refers to improving human well-being by seeking a proper balance between social, economic and environmental change over the long term. The old ways, which have dominated for the past century or more, are no longer appropriate for a post-industrial, sustainability-driven society. Sustainability is not only a new scientific, political, social and legal concept, but an entirely new business philosophy based on a new mythology. It requires that business think differently about its role in society and how it goes about what it does.

The changes needed in order for business to survive and thrive in an age of sustainability are so fundamental that they are akin to changing its identity, its underlying nature. At the moment, we  …

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/beyond-reasonable-greed”]Page[/button] Beyond Reasonable Greed (book)

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Visser, W. (2002) Can We Survive the Future? Only if Business Shapeshifts From Lions into Elephants. Namaste, Volume 19, October.

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