Friday, April 24, 2009

Planning for a sustainable business

I am making good progress in the development of a new short course - planning for a sustainable business. Note the suggested name change, it is actually called starting a business, or starting a sustainable business.. I'm in two minds whether to make the sustainability side of things explicit, or whether it is more sustainable (captures more people, carries a stronger message) if the title did not highlight sustainability and the content said it all. I guess when the wider development team are engaged, we will discuss this and decide.

Thanks to Steve Henry pointing me to the Ministry for the Environment's Sustainable Management Fund, we have a progressed application for funding that is in the final phase of approval. In this phase the SMF support the refinement of the plan and budget towards their final decision to fund the project or not. The deadline for this refining stage is June, and I am to have a completed plan and budget as per their templates.

Here are my initial attempts at the SMF Plan template. I haven't started expanding the budget yet (it is on another template) until I get feedback from SMF on how the plan is reading and apply their suggested changes.

In short the plan is 3 fold as per initial meetings with all local stakeholders on the appropriate needs of this course (see project notes):
  1. develop a new business planning text that incorporates sustainable accounting, marketing and operations, and that is useful to other business support and education agencies.
  2. list all the seminars, workshops and community events that relate to the content of the business plan. Tax seminars, sustainable business open days, accounting workshops etc etc. Many of these events are available freely to the public and on a regular basis, so our task is to organise their dates and locations into a usable calendar for students undertaking our course, and have course facilitators direct students to this information and events as required when completing the planning text. Where there are content gaps we contract people to deliver seminars and workshops, offering them freely to the public as well.
  3. the final part is to develop a nationally recognised and accredited, not for profit course targeting students who are completing studies and considering to start a business, as well as general public, with assessments relating to the requirements of the various business support agencies who will progress graduate's ideas further.

Notes on this educational development are being kept on the wikieducator page: starting a business

Some thinking of step 1 - the tex

Last night I was thinking about step 1 - the development of a sustainable business planning text. On the project notes wiki I have been listing links to information that may be useful to this first stage. The difficulty is obviously not in finding a business plan text, we have that care of NZTE, it is in incorporating sustainability ethics, principles and methods in a usable way.

Particularly useful links have been the financial permaculture work and the Global Reporting Initiative.

The GRI work is based on triple bottom line accounting mainly, but with a lot of set up guidelines aimed at auditing existing practices, addressing ethical and organisational changes, and setting principles. The wording and layout in this document will be useful, but I think it is still too complicated for our needs, and will blow out the size and reading level of the final text we develop.

I have always been impressed with how usable and flexible the principles of permaculture are and how directly they relate in fact to documents like the GRI. I would say that the permaculture principles are very much based on things like GRI in fact, and that the permaculturalists have done great work in making them plain, accessible English.

But I think the real results will be something in between the GRI and the at times overly simplified permaculture guidelines. For example:

Permaculture sets up on 3 ethics:
  1. Care for earth
  2. Care for people
  3. Fairly sharing
If you ignore the mildly feel good language, essentially what these ethics are is the triple bottom line thinking of the GRI:
  1. Ecology
  2. Social
  3. Economy
In the text that guides people in planning a sustainable, we need it to echo these foundations through everything from the vision statement to the accounting... but how?

That's where the permaculture principles come in handy, and they too are relatable to the tools in the Global Reporting Initiative once we are able to look beyond the simple wording:
  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change
I intend to try and map this list against what I see in the GRI guidelines and to see if these permaculture principles can help simplify the GRI guidelines. I can only go so far with this, as ultimately it is up to a recongised expert who will be contracted to write and/or edit the final text. I can only hope that person is more down this road than I am.

I think the above principles are useful in expanding the ethical framework and leading us towards methods to develop and document in the business plan, and developing the right accounting tools to measure outcomes better. The challenge is to find the right, first-step balance in developing a new guiding text for people planning a business. The text has to lead people toward having a business plan that a bank or other supporting institution will still recognise, but encompass as much sustainability thinking as possible within that format.. it will be a challenge, but I'm confident it can be done, and that it will help make a significant difference to new business practices in Otago.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons (Attribution) license.


stevenparker said...

Very impressiive initiative Leigh. I am interested to see how the permaculture principles translate into new practices in the organisation.

sparkered said...

Oh yes and not naming the project with the word 'Sustainable' in the title might be a good move, it's such a jargon grey term these days and might dilute what the project is about. Making the project title implicit makes sense.

My Two Cents.

Sean FitzGerald said...

Just a thought... what about "Planning for a Resilient Business"?

Whether you are talking about "resilience" or "sustainability" the principles are basically the same, but psychologically it can be more empowering, especially as we move into difficult and unreliable economic times.

And you avoid the negative connotations Steven mentions (although, on the other hand, "sustainability" is trendy at the moment, so that could be a plus too).

Also, as James Cascio points out in this article -

"Sustainability is inherently static. It presumes there's a point at which we can maintain ourselves and the world, and once we find the right combination of behavior and technology that allows us some measure of stability, we have to stay there. A sustainable world can avoid imminent disaster, but it will remain on the precipice until the next shock.

Resilience, conversely, accepts that change is inevitable and in many cases out of our hands, focusing instead on the need to be able to withstand the unexpected. Greed, accident, or malice may have harmful results, but, barring something truly apocalyptic, a resilient system can absorb such results without its overall health being threatened."

Sean FitzGerald said...

Oh kaffooey! TinyURL doesn't like the Foreigh Policy URL, not even the printable one.

You can get there via

sparkered said...

Here is an interesting presentation from Don Perrin in relation to your project.



25th Feb 2009
Dr Donald G. Perrin Ph.D. &
Dr Elizabeth Perrin Ph.D

Widening economic woes force us toward other paradigms of teaching and learning
One impact of the economic crisis is a realization that the future will not return us to the world as we knew it. Education must respond to these changes. It is an opportunity to rethink and refocus the vision, mission, theory and practice of education for the needs of the 21st century learners and their future careers.
Examples and case studies will stimulate discussion of alternative theories, practices and paradigms to motivate students with relevant knowledge and skills. The presentation will position instructional design and technology in a broader more urgent context and respond to social and economic changes.

Flyer: DonPerrinFlyer-revision.pdf
Presentation Recording:

David McQuillan said...

I'm wondering if anyone's pointed out to you the accounting idea of EVA (economic value added). I think it's a useful idea to incorporate alongside of triple bottom line reporting.

Also re: sustainability.
I think it depends on where you think you'll get the most uptake. If it's inside OP, I think adding sustainability is likely to lead to more uptake (due to organisational requirements). If it's outside OP, I'd take the term out. I agree with sparkered on this one, and I also think that the term can engender a bit of the old knee-jerk in some people.

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks for the link to EVA Dave. Its interesting especially because triple bottom line accounting doesn't go very far into how we actually account for them.. from what I can tell by skim reading so far. This EVA gives us hints on how we might go about it.. although in the end it would need substantial simplification for the average bear going into a small business.

As for using the word sustainability, or another like resiliance.. I'm for dropping it out all together.

The availability of a pre packaged short part time course open to anyone interested in starting their own small business should be attractive in its own right. Polytechnic lecturers will recognise the value of the course's links to support services outside, and its quality content, and so send their student to this course. The problem imapcting this though, is if they already have their own course for business, and a perception that it must be taught specifically for their sibject area, and if their course brings income that the department relies on. All this needs to be sorted through when we come to setting up the course.

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