Business schools around the world organize a range of conferences and events to discuss sustainability challenges and opportunities with practitioners. Many of these only last a day but how do you create an event, a network that will help bring academics and practitioners together continuously to share lessons learnt and focus on making a real impact in the area of sustainability.
This is what the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) in Berlin, Germany has aimed to do with its Sustainable Business Round Table. Founded by Professor CB Bhattacharya, the E.ON Chair in Corporate Responsibility at ESMT in 2011, the initiative is part of a series of projects at the school which aim to fulfil its mission statement; to develop entrepreneurial leaders who think globally, act responsibly and respect the individual.
I recently had the chance to speak with Professor CB Bhattacharya about this initiative.
1. What is the Sustainable Business Round Table and why did you start it?
I have been engaged in research in this area for 15 years now and recently published a book called Leveraging Corporate Responsibility: The Stakeholder Route to Maximizing Business and Social Value which studies how stakeholders view companies’ sustainability initiatives. While doing this research what became immediately clear was that in order to make sustainability stick it would have to be mainstreamed across business.
For this reason in 2011 I started the Sustainable Business Round Table (SBRT). The SBRT is a forum for academics and businesses to come together in a common setting to discuss the challenges and opportunities around how to mainstream sustainability practices within their companies in an open setting.
What is particularly unique about this forum is the way we organize our meetings. Meetings take place twice a year, in April and November for one and a half days and each has a particular theme. Past themes have included “Where sustainability meets profits: Is there a sweet spot?”, “The role of HR in creating a sustainable culture within organizations”, and “Integrating sustainability into branding and marketing strategy”. Each meeting is attended by the sustainability professional from the different companies who also bring with them the representative from the department of the meeting’s focus. For example, at our first meeting around the role of HR we had sustainability representatives attend with a representative from the HR department. The idea is to build relations between the two groups and to work to move sustainability from the periphery into the core of the business.
2. Who is involved in the SBRT?
In 2011 when the SBRT started we had six companies sign up. Today we have 17 members and this number continues to grow. Members include Accenture, Aegon, Allianz, BASF, Coca-Cola Enterprises, E.ON, Fraport, Intel, Man, Deutsche Telekom, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Nestlé, PwC, Siemens, Vattenfall, and Unicredit. As you can see they come from across sectors and in our case are all large companies. We found it easier to start with large companies because they can invest more and have the opportunity to be leaders in this field. Some of the businesses were already affiliated with the school while we have reached out to others.
By joining, companies have the chance to discuss best practices, opportunities and the challenges of implementing sustainability strategies with other world class companies, formulate and implement strategies that maximize both business and societal value and set up joint research projects with ESMT as an academic partner. We aim to keep the group relatively small to provide scope for active dialogue, the opportunity for participants to really roll up their sleeves and engage in peer-to-peer learning. We want to help them have an impact on their businesses, to create strategies that they can take back to their management and hopefully implement.
Members are also given access to a dedicated website where they can continue discussions and ask questions on an on-going basis.
3. What have been some of the challenges and successes of the SBRT?
I’d say that there are two main challenges when it comes to organizing these events. The first relates to the sustainability professionals themselves. They are already involved in many different activities and this could be seen as another event that takes them away from their desk. However member companies recognize that this is an on-going discussion and it is very beneficial to them. Another challenge with the sustainability professionals is that we find that staff is constantly changing at the different companies so it becomes a continued investment in time to bring new people up to date and get them engaged.
A second challenge relates to our impact. On a regular basis I ask myself if this is having a real impact on the businesses that attend. It is too early to tell but in the next 3-5 years I hope to take a closer look at this question. What does a company that has truly mainstreamed sustainability look like and how can we know whether the Roundtable has made a difference in that? In the meantime I regularly ask participants whether these events are having an impact in their work and it seems that they are.
Acceptance has been the biggest success. When we started with six companies we had no idea what we were getting into. One thing led to another and now we have legs to stand on. More and more companies are getting interested. Apart from our biannual meetings we also produce a newsletter in February and September and companies are always keen to write articles for this. So far the feedback for all of our meetings has been very positive.
Another success is the increased collaboration we have with the businesses themselves. Increasingly our members are sponsoring projects on campus or bringing projects into the classroom for our students to tackle. They often come in as guest speakers to share their challenges in mainstreaming sustainability into their companies. We are also exploring increased research projects with members. For example we worked with Allianz, a global insurance company, to find out if CSR initiatives were making a difference to employee engagement in the US and Austria.
4. What are your plans for the Round Table moving forward?
We continue to meet as a group twice a year and the next session will be focused on how to integrate sustainability into procurement and supply chains. We would also like to increase our membership numbers to 25. Since there is always a certain amount of absenteeism at every meeting, this would ensure we always have a reasonable number of people in the room to have these conversations while still keeping the group small and intimate. Moving forward I would also like to explore having more interaction between the MBA students and the Roundtable participants. At the moment there is not enough time to interact but I hope to open up some of the sessions in the future to allow for that interaction.
Currently we approach one theme at a time but in three years I would like to bring all the themes together into one event. This would be an opportunity to celebrate and invite everyone to come back in a common forum to see how things have changed over time and begin to explore the impact that the SBRT has had on these companies.
5. What would you recommend to other schools looking at to create something similar?
I would encourage other schools to explore similar types of forums. This is an excellent way to interact with managers and practitioners and as academics to have an influence on pushing the sustainability agenda forward in companies. A forum like this is very possible to organize. You just have to figure out with which companies you would like to engage. These can be small, medium or large; what matters is that collectively you can work together. All business schools have networks of companies that they already work with and also alumni who work for companies so this is a good place to start. Find one or two corporate champions amongst your corporate supporters. Get them on board first and then go with them to get the others on board. My Chair is sponsored by E.ON so I started there and then put together a proposal to gather support from others. From there the membership numbers have spread in part by word of mouth.
For more on ESMT Sustainable Roundtable visit http://www.esmt.org/eng/faculty-research/sustainable-business-roundtable-sbrt/