The Fowler Center’s projects, education programs, and corporate products are informed by its two core concepts: Appreciative Inquiry and Sustainable Value.
Appreciative Inquiry emerged at the Weatherhead School in the 1980s as David Cooperrider and Ron Fry discovered the power of positive inquiry for igniting innovation and whole-system change. Their concept of AI has become a global movement with tens of thousands of practitioners on six continents—all working (1) to identify the unique strengths of individuals, businesses, and systems, and (2) to leverage and unite those strengths to greater effect throughout whole systems.
Likewise, the concepts and practice of Sustainable Value have been driven by leading work at the center. Chris Laszlo’s book Sustainable Value (2008) explains the tools and frameworks for finding potential sources of sustainable value in any system, and his work has been recognized by industry leaders, such as Patrick Cescau, former CEO of Unilever and author of the book’s introduction.
Sustainable Value is defined as a dynamic state that occurs when a company creates ongoing value for its shareholders and stakeholders. By ‘doing good’ for society and the environment, the company does even better for its customers and shareholders than it otherwise would.
The shift from shareholder value to Sustainable Value is the natural outcome of a new external environment characterized by declining natural resources, radical transparency, and rising expectations. Sustainable Value is not just a better environmental strategy; it is a response to a radically different market reality in which the economic, ecological, and social spheres are unified into a single integrated value creation space.
In this framing for Weatherhead students, sustainability is not about the triple bottom line and definitely not about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), environmental sustainability (“green”) or social responsibility for its own sake. It is about a market shift (as Dr. Andrew Hoffman of the Ross School at the University of Michigan says) in which environmental, health and social issues are becoming the biggest business opportunity ever seen.
Together, the concepts of Appreciative Inquiry and Sustainable Value answer the challenge of business today: to generate wealth while strategically addressing the pressures of multiple stakeholders, increasing competition, and ever-greater resource limitations.
BUSINESS AS AN AGENT OF WORLD BENEFIT
Extraordinary times require more than ordinary leaders. As we emerge ever so slowly from global recession one might ask: "Isn't a center for sustainable enterprise a luxury item in a business school? Isn't the lens of sustainable value creation—that is, managing a business with a focus on people, planet and prosperity—something that will immediately be cut in hard times, eliminated much like a philanthropic frill, from the mindset and task of managers?"
One of the Weatherhead School of Management's most humble and successful graduates—Chuck Fowler, CEO of Fairmount Minerals, together with his wife Char Fowler—invested in our school's world-class future with a gift of $7.5 million dollars because they believe the exact opposite. "Sustainability is here to stay," says Chuck Fowler, "and it's not just the right thing to do but it's a business innovation engine—doing good and doing well are totally and mutually reinforcing, and sustainability provides an overarching ideal and storehouse of leadership tools to make it so."
In 2002 the Weatherhead School launched an initiative that caught Chuck Fowler's eye. It was called the world inquiry into "business as an agent of world benefit" where faculty and students across the school established a data bank to discover and showcase profitable business innovation in the arena of environmental sustainability and social entrepreneurship. After 2,000 interviews, we soon realized that the data bank was documenting a revolution.
The stories poured in: factories being designed that return more energy to the grid than they use; micro-enterprise models eradicating poverty through profitability; venture capitalists pouring billions into renewable energy; LEED-certified buildings being designed everywhere; new market mechanisms for advancing the public good; new nano-solar startups being likened to the next Google, and the list goes on showcasing the greening of supply chains as well as sustainability initiatives across whole industries and societies. What we noticed was that the "firms of endearment"— companies such as Toyota, GE, Whole Foods, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Unilever, Fairmount Minerals—were not only winning the hearts of their stakeholders vis-à-vis their sustainability innovations, but they were improving every aspect of their business. Top-rated stars in virtually every industry are today embracing sustainability as if it were the biggest business opportunity of the 21st century. How else, we asked ourselves, can we explain why GE is investing $2.5 billion per year in "eco-imagination" or why Toyota is designing a car that purifies the air as it operates, or why Wal-Mart's strategy office has now been re-named as the office for "strategy and sustainability".
In the span of few short years (2002-2009) the tiny initiative—Business as an Agent of World Benefit or "B.A.W.B"—grew to become one of the most productive interdisciplinary projects in the history of the Weatherhead School. In scholarly terms, one can celebrate the initiative's book publications, dissertations, and articles, including two Stanford University Press books— Positive Design and Appreciative Construction: From Sustainable Development to Sustainable Value (Thachenkery, Cooperrider and Avital, 2010) Sustainable Value: How the World's Leading Companies are Doing Well by Doing Good (Laszlo, 2008) and Handbook of Transformative Cooperation (Piderit, Fry and Cooperrider, 2007). In terms of educational impact, B.A.W.B created the "MBA Institute for Sustainable Value"—something singled out by Forbes as one of the most innovative courses in the MBA world—along with the new Masters in Positive Organization Development (MPOD), and a series of executive education programs helping companies ask the important questions: "How can we use the lens of sustainable value creation to spark innovation in new products and operations, open new markets, ignite customer passion and loyalty, energize an entire workforce, accelerate learning, build greener supply chains, reduce risks? How can we radically advance energy productivity, cut costs, strengthen brand loyalty, and generate higher market cap?" Dozens of companies from our region—leaders such as Alcoa, Parker Hannifin, Sherwin Williams, Forest City Enterprises, Dealer Tire, Go Jo, the Federal Reserve, Cleveland Clinic, Eaton Corporation and Chuck Fowler's Fairmount Minerals—served as early thought-partners and collaborators. We also were called upon by Mayor Jackson to design and help lead the summits for Sustainable Cleveland 2019: Creating an Economic Engine to Create a Green City on a Blue Lake.
But perhaps the largest accelerator of Weatherhead's prominence in the increasingly crowded sustainability domain happened when, in 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called upon our school to design, and lead, a global Appreciative Inquiry summit with 1,000 CEOs from Hewlett-Packard to Coca-Cola and from Novartis to Tata Industries "to unite the strengths of markets with the social and global issues of our day." Today, the UN Global Compact is made up of more than 8,000 corporations, and the Weatherhead School of Management—because of B.A.W.B and its distinctive strength in appreciative inquiry and applied sustainability—has been named the Secretariat of the US Network of the UN Global Compact.
It is in this spirit—a time of tremendous momentum at our school and for the field of management as a whole—that our earlier initiative on Business as an Agent of World Benefit has now been elevated to a new level of priority, scale, and scope as an interdisciplinary center of excellence. With the timely and generous gift of Chuck and Char Fowler, it is with great pride that we introduce it and celebrate it—our new center—The Fowler Center for Sustainable Enterprise. Our aim is crystal clear: to build on and leverage the B.A.W.B legacy and to create the finest research, education, and applied center for sustainable enterprise in the world.
Yes, extraordinary times require more than ordinary leaders. Please join us in celebrating not just the gift of Chuck and Char Fowler, but join us in celebrating their leadership, their example, and their humanity.
David L. Cooperrider, PhD.
Fairmount Minerals Professor of Social Entrepreneurship
Faculty Director, The Fowler Center for Sustainable Enterprise