Corporate learning and sustainability – what do they have to do with each other?

All of us still have a lot to learn. What could be more sustainable in the world of constant change than learning?

When I, an L&D Specialist, began writing this article on sustainability and learning, I got very excited. We had just launched a campaign to encourage engagement with our internal learning platform (talk about eating our own dog food), with a goal of planting 350 trees based on learning achievements. For every completed or created lesson in our platform, trees would be planted as a result.

We had also announced that our holiday presents for our employees would be ethically produced sweatpants made of recycled material (all you need for remote work nowadays). Even my diet is 90% vegetarian! I felt I was so on top of the game that the blog would come out naturally. And on top of that, everyone knows how environmentally friendly digital learning is in the first place.

Well, turns out the topic wasn’t that easy at all. I ended up with pages of tiring comparison of classroom training to digital learning (c’mon, it’s already 2020), and then after realizing that that’s probably not the freshest perspective, some more pages of total nonsense about sustainability, digital learning, and the COVID-19 pandemic (because it’s still 2020).

After some encouraging words from my colleague Jenni, I gave up on all the writing I had done and accepted that it would never see the sunlight (literally, as it’s November in Finland). I managed to find a pen and paper from my home office and made the most classical thing: a mind map.

So in this article, I’ll be discussing and exploring how the ethos of sustainability affects corporate learning — according to my mindmap. Welcome to my short and winding journey of learning about sustainability and learning!

What is sustainability?

Before I started with my mindmap, I had to pause for a minute to think why writing about sustainability felt so difficult. It was then that I realized I didn’t fully understand the concept of sustainability, despite how many sustainably produced pieces of clothing I owned.

Does sustainability mean the same thing as corporate responsibility? Or is there a thing such as corporate sustainability? At least my slightly annoying but entertaining predictive text in Google Docs seemed to think so. After a bit of Googling, I came to the conclusion that some people claim they mean different things, and some use them as synonyms. So, no quick answers there. As I needed to pick a definition, I ended up with the one by Deloitte:

“Sustainability is a comprehensive approach to the management of organizations which is focused on creating and maximizing long-term economic, social and environmental value. It is a response to the challenges of the modern world facing organizations from the public and private sectors.”

What we learn from this quote:

  • Sustainability is an approach to the management of organizations, so it has to have something to do with organizational strategy.
  • It’s definitely something that is long-term and not just worth one marketing campaign.
  • It might provide solutions to various challenges we face.
  • It creates value.

And now, all I have left is to somehow tie this to corporate learning. So here we go.

Planet, profit and people

As also mentioned in Deloitte’s quote above, sustainability and corporate responsibility are often viewed from three perspectives: environmental, economic and social. When we start thinking about corporate learning, and especially digital learning, what comes first to mind is that it must save the planet, as digital learning reduces the CO2 emissions when there’s no need to travel to a training. Great, am I covered? Maybe not yet.

If we take this thought further, we can say that learning is about changing the way we behave—and thus how the planet might benefit too. According to the UN, education really impacts how sustainable our future will be. We can learn through life, and maybe we’ll one day learn how to take care of our planet. But now, before I get too side-tracked, let’s move on to the next perspective, from the United Nations:

“Education alone cannot achieve a more sustainable future; however, without education and learning for sustainable development, we will not be able to reach that goal.”

Economy. Profit. Sustainability. To be fair, these words don’t necessarily go hand in hand in our minds. Actually, they are even seen as total opposites when it comes to decisions on how the budgets are used. Should we save the planet or the economy?

It does not have to be like that. First of all, in order to build a long-lasting, profitable business, all decisions made should be considered from the perspective of sustainability and responsibility. Will the actions we do now ensure that the business will be profitable now and in the future? That would be the ideal case, wouldn’t it?

In corporate learning, we should make the decisions in the same way. We need to keep questioning ourselves, and keep asking questions.

Is it better to send two people to the two-day classroom training to really focus and take advantage of the trainer, or should we offer this as an online training course for all interested? Should we focus on formal training or put effort into thinking how on-the-job learning could be boosted, made visible and valued? How do we make sure we are up to date as a company, in terms of knowledge and know-how? How do we make sure we have the skills we need in the future to stay profitable and successful? What is the most economical and sustainable way for us in the long term? Can we affect the stability of our business by learning?

Is your head spinning already? Mine sure is.

Now lastly, let’s consider the third aspect, social responsibility. People. Now, as a member of the People team, working in a company whose product is a learning platform, this should be my field. But at this point, I’m going to already cut myself some slack—we have learned by now that corporate sustainability is a complex topic that can’t be covered in one blog or just by planting trees.

As responsibility is one of our values at Valamis, social responsibility is something that I actually think about quite a lot. Our whole team ensures that we take care of our employees and treat everyone equally, offering the same opportunities to all. We put our effort into making sure our employees have the skills they need, that they are able to do their work. We try our best to make sure they have a chance to succeed in their work and get any support they need. After all, the most important thing companies have is their people. (Getting almost emotional here…)

My conclusion (or a beginning?)

I have now managed to cover all three aspects of sustainability, and soon I will post this article to the internet for my mom to read it. Now, at this point of a blog, I should come up with some nice summary or conclusion.

The problem is that I feel this is only a beginning. With the topic of this article, I made you click it open by promising to discuss what corporate learning and sustainability have to do with each other. I started the article by realizing how complex the topic is, continued by exploring some definitions around it, and ended up considering what sustainability means for me, in terms of corporate learning and in my job.

I think the conclusion I can make here is that I—and all of us—still have a lot to learn. Luckily, all we need for learning throughout our lives is positive attitude and a growth mindset. What could be more sustainable in the world of constant change than learning?

PS: That tree campaign I mentioned in the beginning? So far, 204 trees have been planted.