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A conceptual synthesis of organisational transformation: How to diagnose, and navigate, pathways for sustainability at universities?

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Baker-Shelley, A., van Zeijl-Rozema, A., Martens, P., 2017. A conceptual synthesis of organisational transformation: How to diagnose, and navigate, pathways for sustainability at universities? Journal of Cleaner Production 145, 262–276.
Thematic Area
Environmental studies
Universities will play a profound role in a century in which society will be judged by its capacity for self-transformation in response to pandemic crises of climate change and capitalism. Frameworks of analysis of sustainability in organisations could benefit from tangible systemic rubrics for transformation. This research delineates core elements of organisational transformations for sustainability at universities. Criteria were woven into a framework that has value as a diagnostic tool, spanning three scales and five theoretical perspectives: behavioural science, corporate governance and responsibility, organisational change management, socio-ecological systems and sustainability in education and research. This was geared towards what organisational transformation for sustainability entails with universities specifically, if leverage points can be identified, and what the moral imperatives are of universities pursuing sustainability transformation. The orientation was to deduce distinct ‘rules of the game’ to diagnose organisational transformations for sustainability through descriptive and prescriptive criteria. The findings suggest high capacity for organisational transformation involves extroverted engagement, where potential rubrics help standardise comparison of environmental social governance issues in similar cultural and regional contexts. Students, academics, researchers and practitioners co-create knowledge in a ‘republic of stakeholders’, through a dialogical process of organisational-societal learning. Internally, an integrated approach, cross-linking information and disciplines from a network of actors has benefits for psychological wellbeing. Criteria for diagnosis could be formulated into an instrument through testing the analytical framework in transdisciplinary research cases. Future research might well focus on institutional differentiation and evolution of public research universities that navigate departures from traditional models, co-creating in reflexive iterations to achieve leverage for sustainability transformation.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
The relevance lies primarily in the demonstration of how a university pursuing sustainability issues can be described as a system using concepts from various scientific disciplines:

Behavioural science and psychology allows an understanding of how individuals undergo (sustainability) transformation. Conceptualising transformations as wicked problems, where the social complexity of the university itself proves an obstacle, then a solution presumably requires a psychological shift from denial to acceptance to recognise the nature of the problem and how to overcome it as an organisation.

Organisational development relevant for transformations toward sustainability at universities is based on organisational learing combined with social learning to move towards transition. Elements from organisational change management can help us identify firstly, what a sustainability transformation entails, and secondly how to diagnose one across three
levels micro, meso and macro.

Socio-ecological systems perspective. Theories and models from socio-ecological systems (SES) theory and coupled human-environmental relationships will help to frame a university’s potential to transform itself to a viable alternative; this can lead to social resilience of individuals educated, and ecological resilience of the wider-world through its research. General systems theory is one lens for how phenomena of organisational transformations towards sustainability propagate. Elements identified from the socio-ecological systems perspective, which functions at the interface of the internal properties
of the university as an SES and its external environment at the societal or regime level can be used for diagnosis.

Corporate’ governance for sustainability Lessons from corporations that are
learning and progressing to become more environmentally and socially responsible will be helpful for determining what makes a transformation towards a sustainable university. The article moves to the perspective of corporate governance for sustainability; derived from corporate governance, corporate sustainability and CSR. Universities must also manage the inflow and outflow of natural capital. A socially responsible university harnesses its assets and knowledge for addressing the needs and problems of the local community. CSR monitoring plays a role as an organisation’s means of communicating the extent of ESG issues, how important it considers them to be, and how they should be valued and disclosed externally according to key stakeholders.

Sustainability in education and research The university could play a role as a trans-sectoral actor and facilitator of transformational change in the 21st century; a tremendous opportunity to prepare the entire campus community to be better equipped to make decisions for a future that rapidly becomes more complex, dynamic and uncertain. Proposing the model of a university that has fully-integrated sustainability across four portfolios of research, education, operations and community.  This perspective breaks into two further dimensions: Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), and Sustainability Science, Policy and Integrated Assessment (IA).

The synthesis of these persepctive is preseted as a series of sectorized concentric circles, showing a framework of questions from each of the scientific perspectives (sectors) can illuminate on the micro, meso and macro-levels (concentric circles).
Point of Strength
The strength is that the article shows examples of what can be derived from different scientific perspectives to understand sustainability transformation at a univerity (or other organizations). Thar approach could be used i transdiscipinary research as well as in education. 

However, the weakness is that the systemic connections are only alluded to inn tet, not operationalized in the model of concentric circles. Hence, the model needs to be supplemented with other perspectives to become fully useful.