Sustainability education is a hot topic in the business world right now. Many companies are looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact, and there is a lot of talk about how to do this effectively while preserving traditional and financial targets. In this new era of Environmental and Social Governance (ESG), some organizations are succeeding through experimentation, while others are still trying to find their footing. One of the most important things any company can do when it comes to sustainability and moving towards an ESG-oriented business framework is reflect on its learning processes. In this article, we explore different models of organizational learning and how they can help a business achieve better impact outcomes.

Before we jump in, it's important that you understand the meaning behind "organizational learning for impact." This idea refers to the programmatic learning established by companies seeking to define their impact objectives and deliver business and societal value using data analyses and analytical frameworks of participatory learning. Organizations follow a handful of learning models, which are highly correlated to their organizational structure. An organization’s culture and what is perceived as success also shape the way a business learns.

To be effective, learning must be underpinned by a data-oriented culture and an organizational structure that thrives on analytical investigation and subsequent inquiry of outcomes. This means that the first step for creating a lasting roadmap for learning about sustainability – and ultimately, for growing the value of an enterprise – is to establish enterprise-level data methods to address environmental and social challenges and unveil the leverage points of a business.

How does an organization learn?

All organizations tend to fall into one of three camps: innovation-oriented, manufacturing and process improvement-oriented, or a combination of both. The majority of companies will be a combination of the two. As businesses add impact-oriented goals to their external and internal commitments, they inherit a modus operandi that reflects the way they traditionally do business. That is the premise and the context in which societal goals may simply be added to the anonymous bucket of business deliverables.

The unfortunate reality is that, most of the time, this “business as usual” mode will not be sufficient to achieve these objectives. Organizational learning for impact demands a new way of doing business and a different set of processes altogether.

What are some common organizational learning models?

Organizational design practitioners usually refer to four primary types of learning models: the scientific model, the single-loop model, the double-loop model, and the deuterium-loop model.

The scientific method model is based on empirical evidence and experimentation. This type of learning is often used in manufacturing settings where there is a need to find cause-and-effect relationships. The scientific method can also be applied to social sciences, such as psychology, to study human behavior.

The single-loop model is a type of learning that happens when an organization makes changes in response to feedback but does not question the underlying assumptions that led to the need for change. This type of learning is often seen in organizations that have a hierarchical structure and a clear chain of command.

The double-loop model is a type of learning that happens when an organization questions its underlying assumptions and then makes changes accordingly. This type of learning is often seen in organizations that are more flat and decentralized, where employees are encouraged to challenge the status quo.

The deuterium-loop model is a type of learning that happens when an organization not only questions its assumptions but also tests them against reality. This type of learning is often seen in organizations that are constantly experimenting and iterating on their products and services.

Which organizational learning model is right for sustainability?

The type of organizational learning model that is right for organizations seeking to embed sustainability in their DNA will depend on a number of factors, including company’s culture, structure, and objectives. When seeking to establish an impact-oriented roadmap for a business, it is important to consider how your organization can learn by doing. This means finding ways to test your assumptions and iterate on your products and services. It also means establishing a data-oriented culture and an organizational structure that thrives on analytical investigation. By influencing the way organizations learn, you can set the foundation for better impact outcomes.

The Learning Journey...

There are many different learning models that co-exist within different layers of organizations that influence their success, including different data methodologies that influence how organizations retain and deploy the information they collect through time.

Whether in the context of impact goals or not, learning processes are dynamic. Regardless of whether “impact” thinking has been already woven into the fabric of an organization, it requires leaders to frame a new vision. 

For more information about different learning models for impact success, you can find The Impact Challenge online, here. All author royalties benefit the Global Association for Research Methods and Data Science.

About the Author

ALESSIA FALSARONE, SASB FSA, is a sustainable finance expert and a fellow of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program. Her work bridges the gap between sustainability, financial innovation and risk management. A sought-after commentator for media outlets and contributor to academic programs, Ms. Falsarone is a member of high-level advisory groups that promote environmental and climate finance, including the G20 Environmental Ministerial, the London Stock Exchange, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (Value Reporting Foundation) and the UN Principles for Responsible Investment. In recognition of her innovative vision for business and society, she has received an Honoree Award from the Women’s Venture Fund and the 2021 Global Leadership Award by the SheInspires Foundation in the UK.

She is an alumna of Stanford University, the MIT Sloan School of Business and Bocconi University. Ms. Falsarone holds certified director status with the National Association of Corporate Directors. An avid advocate of sustainability in business education, she has contributed to educational initiatives on the topic at the Asian University for Women, the Society of Corporate Compliance, the Swiss Sustainable Finance Initiative, the United Nations, the World Bank, Stanford University and University of Chicago, including delivering training on climate risk and green finance in Asia Pacific and Latin America.

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