Sustainability & HR: A 3-D approach

Associate Professor Joo-Seng Tan at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University Singapore tells us how HR can help develop a sustainability-oriented organisation

Sustainability involves people or human resources, capital or financial resources, natural resources, institutions, and the environment. Sustainability, in short, can be defined as the integration of three core elements:


1.     economic growth or financial performance,

2.     social responsibility or progress, and

3.     environmental performance of a corporation.

Many understand sustainability is critical to future-proofing the corporation. The underlying challenge is developing a sustainability-oriented organisation. In developing a sustainability-oriented organisation, there are three major challenges:

1.     the lack of consensus on what sustainability means,

2.     the lack of shared understanding and commitment on sustainability across the organisation, and

3.     the lack of imagination in achieving a sustainable future.

HR can play a pivotal role in addressing these challenges by adopting a 3-D approach. As the challenges of developing a sustainability-oriented organisation are highly complex, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, it is appropriate that HR view sustainability from a 3-D perspective:

1.     1-D – “think again”,

2.     2-D – “think across”, and

3.     3-D – “think ahead”.

The first challenge is the lack of consensus on what sustainability means (and the variations in motivation). Sustainability is a “many-splendored thing”, like a rainbow, with a whole range of meanings and different shades and hues. As there are different shades of “green”, there are also different shades of “sustainability”.

Some corporations are concerned with all three core elements of sustainability while others are concerned with one or two core elements, focusing more on economic or financial performance and/or social responsibility. Some corporate leaders are of the view that companies can only be socially responsible when they are financially sustainable. Other business leaders think that sustainability is a great PR and marketing tool.

In a recent study of the top 100 US corporations report on sustainability by Alexandra Rousseau, there was significant variation on what sustainability means. Here, HR can help organisations adopt the 1-D perspective to “think again” (rethink) what it means to be a sustainability-oriented organisation (and the driving force behind it), and to achieve greater consensus among all the key stakeholders.

The second challenge, which is closely related to the first challenge, is the lack of shared understanding and commitment on sustainability across the organisational hierarchy. Sustainability is not equally understood, and the commitment to sustainability is not equally shared across all levels and functions in the organisation. HR can help organisations adopt the 2-D perspective to “think across”, by fostering stronger alignment and closer integration of sustainability across the organisation. HR strategies systems, policies and tools can help “connect the dots”, and build shared cross-level and cross-functional understanding as well as accelerate stronger commitment on sustainability across the organisation.

The third challenge is the lack of imagination in achieving a sustainable future. In order to develop a sustainability-oriented organisation, it is important to “think again” and “think across”, in addressing the first two challenges. However, to develop a truly sustainability-oriented organisation, it is even more vital to “think ahead”, that is, to adopt the 3-D perspective in envisioning what the sustainable future holds for all stakeholders. HR can help organisations “think ahead”, and in the process, help create a sustainability-oriented culture that will attract, motivate, and retain talents that ultimately become the source of sustainable competitive advantage.


Associate Professor Joo-Seng Tan

Dr Joo-Seng Tan is Associate Professor of Management at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University Singapore. He’s actively involved in human resources consulting, global leadership training and development, and executive education. He’s been Chair of the Cornell-Nanyang Institute of Hospitality Management (CNI) Human Resources Thought Leaders Roundtable.

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