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First look at business and sustainability

image: unenvironment.org

Sustainability as a concept originally arose from 18th century forestry industry (Kuhlman T., and Farrington J. "What is Sustainability", Sustainability, 2010) very likely as a form of wealth management, and the realisation of the need to plant and nurture sufficient tree stocks to ensure continued availability of mature forest products, and thus profit, over the medium and long term. A more holistic view of sustainability is however in play, as various, perhaps more important values and factors are considered. The United Nations sets out considerations for sustainable development as three factors: Environment, Social and Economic which are related to the three P's, People, Planet, Profit. 

According to the "classic view" on the analysis of business and its processes, the primary concerns of business process management are Time, Costs, Efficiency and Quality (Dumas M. et al. Fundamentals of Business Process Management, Springer, New York, 2013). This antique vision of business process management clearly represents the exploitative framework that drives environmental degradation, human and social costs of labor inequalities, and contemporary, unsustainable economic practices that are ceaselessly critiqued as the evils of capitalism. Yet it is not every alternative or activist perspective to do away with capitalism, it is very likely that free market economy, speculation and capitalist system is here to stay. Business, profit and growth also support development, education and technology which are important parts of finding solutions to our earth's and societies' troubles.

The purpose of this group is to document our own investigations how sustainability and value co-creation can be incorporated into business processes, how to model this, and how to share this in "real" language for "real" people. 

An initial search of relevant academic literature turns up a handful of interesting articles and publications, which we intend to introduce, critique and share here on commonfare. The first is an easy read from 2016, titled "How to Incorporate Sustainability into Business Process Management Lifecycle" (Magdaleno A. M., Duboc L., and Betz S. "How to Incorporate Sustainability into Business Process Management Lifecycle", BPM Workshop, 2016).

On first glance, this appears on Google Scholar to be a research paper and is available for purchase from Springer for 30 euros. Only after further investigation of the authors and publication venue, do we find that it is in fact a workshop introduction. The catchy title purports to addresses an important challenge, yet the text does not provide any outcomes, links, or successful projects as evidence, nor is there any reference to the workshop contribution. And yet it is entered in the repositories of scientific knowledge, and turns up in a variety of online queries linking sustainability and business process. This reflects the convoluted nature of such scientific publication and the difficulty of finding and filtering useful information. Especially for someone on the outside of academia, trying to access this knowledge, and perhaps improve their business practice for the better, paying 30 euros for an such a cursory introduction to the problem-space would be a very poor investment. 

The real meat of the article, however, points out several trends, and we feel, important points that introduce the challenges we ourselves want to investigate. The authors lay out a definition of sustainability regarding shaping practices of today that ensure the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. To do this, they allude to the three P's and how a focus on sustainability is currently questioning "the classic view" of business. The authors mention GreenBPM, and the need to factor in for example social justice and wellbeing rather than simply the environmental consequence of unsustainable business practices. As is typical in such a workshop introduction, the state of the art is questioned, the authors say there is not enough work being done in this area, therefore we need such a workshop...let's discuss!

1) Firstly, the research agenda that this paper sets out, is focussed on the modelling of business processes. This is clearly important, and would indeed be supported by their first goal, "the definition of a conceptual model of the relation between sustainability and business processes". Surely we need new ways, new lenses, so to speak, to view and understand the challenges. In fact a conceptual model and taxonomy is not enough, even if said model is proposed as a collaborative effort. Before such a model is produced an exhaustive analysis of sustainability is necessary. 

2) The paper's second stated goal is the development of a new sustainable business process management language. We contend that a new language, with new acronyms and new rhetoric is perhaps unnecessary, and extending the existing languages is more appropriate. Yet academics often seem to want to generate and then claim ownership of a new thing, rather than accept incremental advance. 

3) Next on the list of goals is the production of a catalog of metrics, which would of course be useful, in particular because not every proposition for sustainability, as we will see in this series of sharing on commonfare, included evaluation metrics, or methods at all. More important is the call to extend metrics beyond environment, the Planet of the three P's, to include social and economic measures, the People and Profit.

4) The fourth and final goal, titled process visualisation, is a bit vague, though it suggests expanding on existing visualisation techniques how these could support specialists to understand the impact of sustainability. The point of this seems to be suggesting the start of development for some kind of tool, yet returning to our comment on the paper's first goal, before such a tool is produced, an exhaustive analysis of sustainability is necessary. We also question the narrow range for such a tool, as supporting specialists rather than contributing to the commons, and extending the knowledge-base. 

In conclusion, this work and our consideration of it, is a starting point to delimit some issues in business-related fields concerning sustainability. And as we proofread, we realise it contains also some criticism of academia in general, certainly the publication model. As academics and content producers ourselves, we question if the model of a 30 euro academic article, four pages talking about a workshop, is itself sustainable =) 

We look forward to entering this into the group conversation, and invite you to share your ideas in the comments.

If you would like to contribute more to this area of discussion, please do JOIN THE GROUP
Sustainable Business and Value CoCreation

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