Tuesday, January 8, 2013

To be Sustainable, Get Out of Your “Comfort Zone”

After one year of work, the Part 1 of the Special Issue titled “Managing Wicked Problems: The Role of Multi-Stakeholder Engagements in Value Creation” has finally come out and you can find it here online.

This has been published with the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review (IFAMR).

Happy reading and I'd love to receive your comments on both content and methods. How does this apply and relate to the problems that your organization and your country is facing? I am really curious and your comment could be the starting point to expand our investigation.

First, here I’d like to take some time to thank to the following people:
  • my Co-Editors Otto Hospes, who gently inspires and challenges me with insightful questions coming from extensive experience with this topic and Brent Ross, who makes me keep calm and acts firmly in turbulent times;
  • Kathryn White, IFAMR Technical Editor, who practically puts together our contributions, patiently coordinates and revises the details of the entire work and provides enthusiasm along the process;
  • Peter Goldsmith, IFAMR Editor-in-Chief, who gave me the opportunity of creating this issue with no hesitation and much trust in shaping it despite my fairly young age and my quite unknown name in agribusiness management research;
  • Michigan State University Ag Bio Research and Product Center of the generous funding and the willingness to cooperate with Wageningen University and me;
  • Each of the authors contributing to this Special Issue. As written in our Editor’s Note, each of them helped putting together a piece of the puzzle.
Second, I’d like to share here what drove my motivation to undertake this work with great deal of enthusiasm.

Something that I continuously find written and re-written innumerable times in blogs, journals, reports and press releases and repeated is: “Today’s world sustainability problems do not allow companies, managers and individuals to keep doing business as usual”.
But what does this really mean for us, and for me, in practice? How can we make it applicable to our daily lives? In my recent and current work, I interpret this as follows:

No matter if you are a leader in a large or small company, in a non-profit organization, in a public agency or political party, or if you are a farmer, a consumer, a researcher or a citizen. Get out of the “comfort zone” of your own network and engage with a broader set of people and groups around your organization and community.

Seek and try to understand the people and groups that have different backgrounds, values, perceptions, assumptions of the world from yours but are tackling the same global problems – although from a different angle – from yours.

As a researcher working on climate change & biotechnology in partnership with a company, go and challenge the NGOs that advocates you; go and chase the local administrator that does not seem to understand the value of what you are doing.

As an agribusiness CEO dealing with problems land, water and commodity supply for your business, embrace farmers, consumers, communities, governments and universities in your strategy, no matter how time constraints you are. As a bank manager, do not be afraid to go out and discuss global finance issues with people demonstrating against the system.

As a politician or policy-maker, go out and discuss the details of how you are reforming systems and what the implications are. As an NGO activist, go and dialogue with the companies that in your opinion are exploiting laborers and land, or violating human rights, if needed demonstrate against them.

As a citizen and consumer, be mindful of your habits and choices; ask yourself what you value and what you stand for, ask yourself what makes you believe and choose to switch to solar panels, or to buy an hybrid car, or to buy some "healthy" or "sustainable" food at your grocery store, or to grow your own food, or instead what makes you believe that none of this is impotant for you. Moreover, investigate how you reached the point of getting to have certain beliefs. Who are the people and organizations that are influencing your beliefs and your daily life habits and choices?   

So sense your stakeholders and take the opportunity to interact with them. Truly accept the challenge of learning from them. And consider changing based on what you learning from them.    

Yet as a leader in your organization and community you are likely to have a fully booked agenda and many things in your head. So why should you ever do all this?

Getting out of the comfort zone of your network is not only to be nice and explorative with today’s world, although as a leader you may enjoy the exploration process. Not only to feel responsible and mindful with society and the environment, although as a leader you are the only one that can do something about it.

Engaging with multiple stakeholders - if done sincerely and meaningfully - creates value to you and to your organization. You and your organization become widely accepted by society, embedded in the local and global community, and deeply perceived as legitimate, transparent, open to dialogue and change.

The subsequent practical benefits for your organization are evident. In managerial terms, they include competitiveness, equity and reputation, trust and social capital, and access to strategic resources. Not seeing them right at your horizon would be very myopic. You should see them, the other people within your organization should see them.      

The more you engage with stakeholders today, the easiest is to deal with them tomorrow. Tomorrow means probably next week, next month, this year, next year, or within a few years from now. Sustainability problems are complex, globally interconnected, and incredibly close to our current lives. As we discuss in this Special Issue, sustainability problems are wicked. In other words if you do not seek, find, understand and deal with these problems today, the problems will find you.

All this may sound quite rhetorical and not new to many. The most adaptive organizations and far-sighted managers in agriculture worldwide are engaging with multiple stakeholders and developed their strategies accordingly since almost one decade (Dentoni and Peterson 2011). Plus, this message has already been largely discussed and developed in stakeholder theory (Freeman 1984 and 2010), wicked problems (Rittel and Weber 1973; Batie 2008; Peterson 2010) and dynamic capabilities (Teece 2007) literature. Within my organization, Wageningen University, a number of researchers have been largely exploring and applying some of these principles (Rabbinge, Hospes, Klerkx and Leeuwis, WUR Center for Development Innovation).

So what is the mission of this Special Issue?

From my point of view, its mission is to move managers, leaders and scholars from being aware that sustainability issues in agribusiness require engaging with multiple stakeholders to create a system of knowledge sharing on the practical questions of how to engage with multiple stakeholders in practice. How to develop effective multi-stakeholder engagements? In particular, what are the appropriate formal and informal mechanisms to engage? How inclusive the optimal stakeholder engagement should be? Which human and physical resources are needed and in which situations?

To tackled these questions, we used a grounded theory approach of inductive research (Eisenhardt 1989) to compare and combine and the recent experience of leaders in companies (Unilever, AllTech), NGOs (Oxfam Novib) and universities (Boston College, Michigan State University, Utrecht University, Wageningen University).

In synthesis, the learning from this experience and research is in Figure 1 of our Editors’ Note.

Why this Special Issue has the aim of creating a system of knowledge sharing rather than just creating some shared knowledge? Because the way I see this Special Issue is as a first step of a continuous process of sharing practices, perspectives and knowledge among managers, leaders and researchers of organizations dealing with sustainability in agribusiness. In our Editors’ Note (Figure 2), we referred to this ambition as a call for immediate and inclusive Community Action Research, a term recently coined by Senge (2006) and which sounds very appropriate in this context.

Creating this platform for knowledge sharing is the reason why Part 1 of this Special Issue will be followed by Part 2, which we aim to publish in April 2013.

We anticipate that in Part 2, using the same research method, we will compare and integrate the also the experience of leaders at Rabobank and VION (as companies), at the Dutch Animal Society (as NGO) and at Michigan State University, Wageningen University and University of Macerata in Italy (as universities) and the list is getting longer.
So keep following us with Part 2 of this Special Issue at www.ifama.org.

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