OS4future: A call to action for organization scientists

by Helen Etchanchu

As a sustainability scholar and mother of two young children (3 and 5 years old), the definition of sustainable development of the Brundtland report 1987, takes on a new meaning. The abstract notion of “future generations” is now personally embodied in my own children and their future. In fact, I get a lot of inspiration from my children for my work. If they ask me in 20 years “what have you done to fight climate change?” I better have a good answer. I hope we all will have a good answer. As academics we are privileged to spend our time, energy, and resources on intellectual endeavors we deem to be important. Medical scientists research solutions for cancer, rare diseases or other ills. They have immensely contributed to the advance in medicine and improved health in the past decades.

Climate scientists have also done their job: By now we have reached vast consensus that climate change is happening and that it is human made. We have entered the Anthropocene. Humans shape the world and have contributed to global warming. Especially our industrial activity, backed by an economic system that is based on the logic of resource scarcity, economic growth and the maximization of self-interest, has contributed to the explosion of the human footprint on our planet.

The good news is that if humans are part of the problem we can also be part of the solution. This is where social scientists can now take the lead. In fact, I’m convinced that we must take the lead. Specifically, as organization theorists and economic sociologists we can offer organizational solutions to help tackle societal challenges. We can help MNCs, family businesses, SMEs, startups, social entrepreneurs, social movement organizations and governments or public agencies (to name a few) to organize more effectively. We know about the challenges and opportunities to bring about organizational and institutional change, we know about the cognitive biases of decision-making and understand the complexities of behavioral and systemic change. We can help improve decision making processes, develop policies, and raise awareness amongst political and business leaders and society at large.

Nevertheless, rather than getting out there to make change happen we remain within our academic micro silos of theoretical specializations. We meticulously craft our academic papers to offer tiny theoretical contributions to our highly specialized academic community. Just as the purpose of business is often reduced to profit maximization, the purpose of business academia is reduced to publishing in top tier academic journals. By pressurizing ourselves to be ever more productive we have become victims of our own measurement metrics. Depression, burn-out, and constant pressure to increase our productivity have become widely spread to threaten our physical and mental health.

But that is slowly changing. Scholars increasingly become disenchanted with the system that we have created ourselves. For decades we have tried to establish the young field of organization science as an academic discipline. We have come a long way to professionalize our journals which have gained international recognition. However, the impact on society of our theorizing has remained largely insignificant. This discourages young academics who enter the field with plenty of energy and a wish to serve professionals, organizations, and society thanks to their scholarship. Moreover, external pressure for impact is likewise growing. From a strategic perspective, the business school environment becomes increasingly competitive. As we must look for outside resources, we need to rethink our value propositions.

Through our scholarship we can offer value to organizations, students but also to society at large. Nevertheless, especially as a sustainability scholar, why does it feel so wrong to be discussing about grand challenges such as climate change in climatized conference rooms, with scholars from across the globe, while others are out on the street calling for climate justice and climate action? After all, we participate in relevant discussions and contribute with our knowledge on how to solve these issues, don’t we? And yet, I continue to feel that there must be more that we can do to have a positive impact on society.

Generally, I always aim at walking my talk; in my home we’ve got solar panels and a renewable energy provider, ecofriendly and energy efficient materials, and an electric car. With my family, I’ve worked towards a zero-waste life style for three years now. I only buy local food and drastically reduced my meat consumption to become a “flexitarian”. Every time I go to the beach I pick up waste that is floating around. I’ve started to be active in my local community to raise awareness about sustainability. Recently I have met a city councilor who told me: “oh, I thought of you at the last town hall meeting because there were only plastic cups and plates, you wouldn’t have been happy!”

And this is when I truly realized the power of our symbolic actions. Beyond our research. Beyond our teaching. We can do much more to “go public”. Simply talk about the issues that we study and the insights that we get from our research. Constantly raise awareness through multiple channels, targeting various audiences – not only in written and oral form but also through our actions. We should not underestimate the power of our individual actions in triggering behavioral change. If anything, the Fridays for Future movement is an important demonstration of this power. I’m convinced that leading by example is also our responsibility as academics and citizens, who are privileged to know about certain complexities of our modern world. To me, that is what the beginning of OS4Future is about.

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