Sustainable Enterprise

Like most SLA members who have a master’s degree, I figure I’ve got enough of a formal education, and I’ve taught, served as a guest-lecturer, and presented regularly over the past few years. But, because sustainability is so pertinent to everything we do now, I felt a need to be a part of the solution. So, I found myself in the role of student again, and it was exhilirating.

I am surprisingly pleased with myself for completing my Sustainable Enterprise Certificate  from Willamette University this spring. The class was an eye-opener, as I thought content would focus on how to interpret some esoteric sustainability index. Instead we looked at system dynamics, leverage points, biomimicry, and the nature of social collaboration—really big ideas—that can produce shifts in people’s thinking about “what is sustainable?” The class literally changed my mind.

Leverage Points

One of the big “aha’s” for me was an article on “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” by Donella Meadows which opens with:

Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points.” These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big shifts in everything.

It’s a great concept, with a surprising history. If you think about it, isn’t a leverage point kind of the same thing as a magic spell or a secret passage way? Only instead of the missing ingredient for a powerful incantation, these leverage points offer access to positive change.

The highest leverage points change the goals, mindsets, and paradigms of a system to enable a new vision. The lowest leverage points deal with subsidies and buffers, but they rarely change the underlying behavior.

For example, we learned that when you want to facilitate change, look for the places where you can intervene in a system and foresee that your intervention will not only have a ripple effect, the change will be in the right direction. Leverage points can be counterintuitive, so use caution.

Info Pros

As an information professional who researches, organizes and disseminates information, I was not surprised to see that the structure of information flows, that is, who does and does not have access to information, is a fairly high leverage point. As they say, “knowledge is power,” so adding information to a system can be a powerful intervention. 

How do you use leverage points to change a system at the highest levels? Meadows advocates that you follow this advice:         

You keep pointing out the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.

In our class, we learned how these tools could lead to a more sustainable economic, social and environmental system. But in the back of my mind, I kept coming back to the goals of SLA, and my new role as president-elect. What kind of leverage points could we uncover to facilitate a new, FUTURE READY state? What other sustainability lessons could I apply to move us toward being essential in the new knowledge economy? 

I’ll be mulling this over for the next few weeks as I completely internalize my new sustainability certificate. I hope you have some answers, too.

Get Yourself Into the Race


Pronunciation: \ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\

Function: noun

Date: 1824

1 : the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
2 : an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

In anticipation of a presentation I will be giving, I talked with Kim Dority about the essential ingredients for a successful information professional. Without hesitation, she said “resilience.”

I nodded to myself and added it to my PowerPoint presentation. But since then, I’ve been thinking: what does resilience really mean? It could mean that, like a punching clown, when you get knocked down, you have the wherewithal to get back up again. Certainly, this is a good trait as it takes character to “get back in the race”, but when you are down, you know there’s got to be a better way. 

Last week I heard a sustainable energy engineer talk about “building resilience into a system.” He was saying that rather than optimizing a system, you could increase strength and increase the possibility of success through building alternative pathways. Alternative pathways to success –now that is very relevant to the information professional right now. 

So, I asked Kim for a little more insight on her version of resilience, and here’s her take on it: 

“The ability to “get back up” is a part of the definition of resiliency, and especially speaks to issues of character and determination and confidence. But I also think that an ability and willingness to learn from our experiences, good and bad, is what turns the “getting back up” into making forward progress toward wisdom, and greater success, however one defines it.”

 Resiliency to Kim means:

  • Ability to get back up when life knocks you for a face-plant
  • Ability to accept setbacks as a natural and welcome part of growth, rather than as a sign of failure – it means you’ve got the courage to try new things, which is requisite to achieving anything in your life
  • Ability to move beyond comfort zones in order to respond to new opportunities
  • Ability to manage our usual reaction to change – i.e., fear or defensiveness – and instead embrace the adventure
  • Ability to see obstacles as momentary delays, for which you will seek alternative solutions. The engineer’s “alternative pathways,” are an on-target analogy

Kim continued with a good metaphor: body surfing, which has passive and active components. “I liken resiliency to body surfing, where your goal is to use the energy of the wave to achieve your goal. Everything I need to know I learned bodysurfing in Southern California… 

  • Anticipate
  • Position for opportunity
  • Paddle like crazy
  • Enjoy the ride, but know it will end
  • Don’t take the sand in your suit personally
  • Know that a new wave is always on the way

 That’s kind of how I think about resiliency! I think its critical issue for information pros!”

Phenomenal results

In a fit of New Year’s reflection, I’ve been wrestling with how to make a more positive impact, you know, on the world. I’ve been a vegetarian (technically, a pescetarian—the fish-eating kind) for thirty years, because that diet is lower on the food chain and  therefore better for the earth. So, I’m committed. But, I’m also an American and Americans use 25% of the world’s resources.

Possibly like you, I’ve been taking a few tentative steps to see what more I can do in terms of sustainability, but I’m nervous about the the guilty feelings of living in an oil-dependent world and having to adopt a reduce, reduce, reduce mantra. But the more I read about it, the more I see sustainability as an opportunity—with an upside for leadership, creativity, collaboration, and the economy. The gut-wrenching downside of our carbon-hungry world is still there, especially if we don’t act. I’m determined to participate—not just in awareness but in action—toward being part of the solution.

Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded states that “green is the new red, white and blue.” It’s a great turn of phrase that he uses to mean that the US has an opportunity to be a global leader in the green revolution. We CAN reduce the negative impact of our current culture. If we act, and start innovating, we can go a long way toward helping the US re-establish its leadership in the world.

To find out about local opportunities, I hooked up with Darcy Winslow, the principal of Design for Sustainable World Collective. She was previously the general manager of Sustainable Business Strategies for Nike, where I first met her. Darcy, in turn, pointed me to the Sustainable Enterprise Certificate at Willamette University that Anne Murray Allen directs.

And this is the stuff I really wanted to blog about! Anne and I talked about “creating a shared vision for people to enlist in.” Anne and two additional co-authors are working on a book about achieving phenomenal results. Phenomenal results—that’s what sustainability needs. Results that are “greater than the sum of our explanations.”

According to Anne, “we need to approach sustainability through first exploring how social well-being is created, supported and expanded.” Assessing and establishing social well-being precedes technological solutions. An increase in social well-being will lead to an increase in financial well-being.

Anne and I discussed how to gain momentum for the sustainable enterprise through the development of shared meaning and a shared point of view. People desire to belong and to contribute. In fact, the two feed on each other: the more people belong, the more they want to contribute; the more they contribute, the more they belong; etc. etc. Then, leadership emerges from contribution.

From that you have a collective wisdom that builds shared meaning that leads to coordinated action that moves mountains.

See what I mean about new opportunities in sustainability? This stuff is exciting!