What is management and why does it matter?

Sustainability is a topic amenable to study by many academic disciplines. Links to climatology, ecology and hydrology, to name but a few, are readily apparent.

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Sustainability is a topic amenable to study by many academic disciplines. Links to climatology, ecology and hydrology, to name but a few, are readily apparent. In the social sciences, much of the research focuses on the arrangements that societies can adopt in order to promote outcomes aligned with what planetary resources can reasonably provide. Policy sciences and economics, in particular, dominate debate about designing and implementing effective legislation, modes of governance and financial mechanisms that will incentivize decisions and choices that support sustainability.

In parallel, management scholars, themselves social scientists, focus on organizations as constructs worthy of academic inquiry. They examine the roles of these social units in bringing about a variety of outcomes, including aspects of individual behavior, financial returns and large-scale changes in norms and values. Organizations are important to study because they are all around us: corporations and NGOs, universities and hospitals, churches and city governments, trade associations and worker cooperatives are just a few of the organizational forms through which meaningful social action takes place. And they are enormously influential. For-profit organizations lobby governments, dictate tastes and fashions through their marketing efforts, and allocate economic resources through the way they build their supply chains, in some cases time fundamentally reshaping entire regions or countries. Universities determine what types of knowledge are valued and transmitted; the fabric of communities is affected by the grass-roots organizations that operate within them. All these channels of influence have very clear implications for sustainability.

Unfortunately, not many organizations see sustainability as their fundamental purpose. Often, it is a “nice-to-have” objective, but is somewhat decoupled from an organization’s raison d’etre. Nonetheless management has great influence over sustainability outcomes. Albeit regulations and incentives can and do influence organizations and how they approach - or ignore - sustainability, organizations do in fact have quite some agency, and not all the choices made by and within them are determined by economics and policy. In particular, management research recognizes that much of the action in and between organizations is not fully captured through the notion of governance. And, as anyone who has ever worked with a particularly effective - or ineffective - manager knows, management is much more than planning and control.

Indeed, management research highlights that organizations are much more than hierarchical structures that obey their masters. Influence is also manifested through networks, culture, leadership skills, taken-for-granted routines and other pathways. Although this might seem imperfect and suboptimal, it does seem to be the case that organizations in the wild are much more complex than what can be captured in an org. chart. Although some might bemoan this reality, it does seem to be obdurate. By better understanding organizations and management as they really are, and not as we wish they would be, we can perhaps make the most of what they can offer. The article – Management for Sustainability - explores how a richer, more clear-eyed view of effective management can promote sustainability.

Dror Etzion

Associate Professor, McGill University