“Demystifying the Struggles of Private Sector Paradigmatic Change: Business as an Agent in a Complex Adaptive System”

Mike Valente, Assistant Professor in Strategy and Business Sustainability at the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario shares some thoughts about his article in the September 2010 Special Issue of Business & Society:



Who is the target audience for this article?

The target audience ranges across a number of stakeholders including business, consumers, investors, non-governmental organizations, activists, communities, and government at both the academic and practitioner levels.  All of these stakeholders (including business academics and practitioners) have vilified business at one point or another as the culprit to many of society’s woes when in fact the cause is more closely attributed to an interconnected and highly interdependent set of actors, of whom the critics are apart.  Complexity theory was an interesting lens to show that blaming business exclusively for their negative impact on society neglects the bigger system that highlights the role of other actors in enabling business to act in this way.  

What Inspired You To Be Interested In This Topic?  

I wanted to peel back the onion to fully understand why business was acting in a manner that was detrimental to society.  There is little doubt that employees inside these organizations really don’t want to have any negative effect on society.  This suggests that vilifying business as the primary culprit was too simplistic when we consider how interconnected consumers, investors, and communities are with business.  For instance, we can vilify Wal-Mart for their actions but we as consumers enable this behavior by shopping there.  I would even go so far as to say that Wal-Mart’s consumers demand of them drastic cost cutting that requires short-cuts that ultimately lead to negative social and ecological externalities.  The same can be said for investors.  We may vilify the oil and gas industry but these same critics likely have investments in these companies and would prefer that they continue to extract oil and gas because it means huge returns financially.  I don’t think many people understand this “system-like” dynamic and instead reduce down behavior as if it was isolated from society.  It’s these sorts of things that inspired me to dig deeper to really understand 1) why is it so difficult for business to change and 2) what would need to happen at the systems level to make business change. 

How Do You See This Study Influencing Future Research And/Or Practice?

Well, I would hope that the paper would inform public policy in that government would recognize that there are many other forces pushing business to be less sustainable in their behavior and that regulation or policies meant to curb business exclusively is too simplistic and must be accompanied by similar initiatives across a range of stakeholders to weaken the enabling role they play.  I would also hope that this would inform business by encouraging them to incorporate as part of their CSR and sustainability strategies provisions that recognize the need to educate consumers about the damaging impacts of certain products and investors of the damaging operations required to make a given return and that if we want to live in a sustainable society, we need to think long-term in our investment strategies.  This shifts the attention to a process whereby companies and their stakeholders collectively work out how to embed sustainability into operations.   

How Does This Study Fit Into Your Body Of Work/Line Of Research?  

My body of work, generally, is about understanding the relationship between business strategy and sustainability and how companies go about adopting sustainability as a strategy. Sustainability is a very complex concept because it represents the longevity of a very interdependent set of social, ecological, and economic systems.  In my research, I’ve found that any attempt by a company to embed sustainability into its operations requires the organizational capacity to appreciate and enfold this complexity.  Because of the complexity of sustainability, companies are highly dependent on being connected with stakeholders who ultimately represent these systems.  In this paper, my goal was to highlight this complexity and to flag that any attempt at adopting sustainability requires a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of these players.  

How Did Your Paper Change During The Review Process?  

Originally, the paper was focused on understanding why business has been unable to change despite substantial encouragement by academics, practitioners and policy makers for a change in behavior.  Complexity theory represented a good lens to explain this.  The reviewers encouraged me to use this same lens to explain what would need to change to encourage a shift in business behavior.

What, If Anything, Would You Do Differently If You Could Go Back And Do This Study Again?

I think what is missing from this paper is the fact that business (especially corporations) has become a rather dominant actor in society.  Companies thus have substantial influence over regulatory processes and consumer preferences which can bias any inclusive process that might have otherwise tempered company ambitions.  

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