Monday, October 27, 2014

Systems Thinking and Sustainability

Sustainability and a systems approach fit together seamlessly. Systems thinking is essential to effectively managing the diverse array of elements associated with sustainability. Managing the various aspects of a sustainability strategy can be daunting. The amount of information available to business leaders today is unprecedented and this data can become disconnected from an organizations overarching goals. A systems approach enables business leaders to make better use of the panoply of available information.

A system is a set of interrelated elements that make a unified whole. As explained by John Muir, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." The logic behind this approach suggests that we cannot fully understand anything apart from the larger systems in which they exist. Systems thinking encourages us to appreciate terms of relationships, connectedness, and context.

A systems approach is one in which a collection of interrelated parts are brought together to achieve a set of objectives. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, often called the father of the systems approach said "In order to understand an organized whole, we must know both the parts as well as the relation between them."

Systems thinking is crucial in our era of big data. It is vital to the task of overseeing the diverse array of components associated with sustainability. In fact the complexity and the sheer volume of information demand a systems approach.

The average company can have anywhere from 10 to 30 different sustainability focus topics. A systems approach ties these elements together in meaningful ways that enable better strategic decision making.

Just as understanding the natural world necessitates an appreciation of the relationships between various aspects of an ecosystem, reports that document interrelationships are important to business leaders. For CEOs and CFOs, timely and accurate sustainability information is vital. Reporting that is integrated, material and in context is a value driver, informing decision making and facilitating access to investment. Keys to success are internal collaboration, internal knowledge transfer and above all removing the silo mentality.

Sustainability drives financial value and a systems approach is an important way of bringing together components that are far too often fragmented.

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