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Brandi, U.;  Collin, K.;  Lemmetty, S. Sustainability Perspectives in Organizational and Workplace Learning Studies. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 27 May 2024).
Brandi U,  Collin K,  Lemmetty S. Sustainability Perspectives in Organizational and Workplace Learning Studies. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed May 27, 2024.
Brandi, Ulrik, Kaija Collin, Soila Lemmetty. "Sustainability Perspectives in Organizational and Workplace Learning Studies" Encyclopedia, (accessed May 27, 2024).
Brandi, U.,  Collin, K., & Lemmetty, S. (2022, October 28). Sustainability Perspectives in Organizational and Workplace Learning Studies. In Encyclopedia.
Brandi, Ulrik, et al. "Sustainability Perspectives in Organizational and Workplace Learning Studies." Encyclopedia. Web. 28 October, 2022.
Sustainability Perspectives in Organizational and Workplace Learning Studies

The association between sustainability and learning in organizations and workplaces represents a current articulated grand challenge for human resource development (HRD) and learning studies and practice. Yet, learning in organizations and workplaces deal with sustainability in scattered and diverse ways that promote calls for more integrated understandings of the different approaches and associations.

organizational learning sustainable development sustainability workplace learning

1. Introduction

Sustainability has gained momentum worldwide in numerous political and business arenas because of the concept’s latent capacity as a solution to some of the most difficult global challenges civilization has ever faced: poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice [1]. Currently, sustainable change and development represent deep-seated environmental, societal, and economic challenges that are not solved easily by existing practices or mere political or business consensus. Attention and action from the whole ecosystem, ranging from transnational bodies via organizations to individuals are needed, to meet these grand challenges in coherent and concrete ways. 
Herein, inquiring into sustainability perspectives from a human resource (HR) and learning perspective connects to two of the seventeen SDGs (ibid.). The two SDGs are used as a framework for how this research characterizes and uses sustainability analytically. Firstly, SDG 4, “Ensure quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, refers to key topics and purposes for HRD and learning studies focusing on development and the sharing and application of knowledge and experiences in workplaces and on an organizational level, on a continuous basis. Focusing on lifelong learning underlines the need to counter internal and external changes to provide equivalent opportunities for the continuous development of human skills and competencies through different learning formats (e.g., formal, non-formal and informal learning). Secondly, SDG 8, “Promote sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”, is used as the second notion for how sustainability is construed here. The importance of bringing organizational and workplace learning to the forefront associated with SDG 8 stems from the idea that success in volatile and dynamic environments, characterized by rapid and radical changes, requires people and organizations to address the need and capacity to continuously adapt and develop.
Circumstances of rapid and radical external and internal changes have not diminished in the present times that in every aspect challenge organizations’ capacity to learn and adapt. For decades, organizational and workplace learning has thus been focused on developing knowledge and learning models that can help explicate and manage learning and development, enhancing enterprises’ learning performance, well-being, healthy workplaces, and learning capacity. Most learning studies examine approaches to knowledge, competencies and experiences based on well-known and traditional themes and discourses, such as HR practices, management, learning and knowledge transfer, economic performance, and competitiveness.

The existing body of knowledge on what learning means in relation to the theoretical and practical transforming ecosystems framed by the sustainability agenda are thus dispersed and unclear. Even though the call for and interest in sustainability is wide-ranging and imperative, this uncertainty represents a key curiosity and impetus for the fields of OL and WPL when it comes to meanings of sustainability. The principal line of argument is thus that we need explorations that can deepen the knowledge of how sustainability is approached in HR and learning studies [2][3][4][5][6].

2. Sustainability in Organization and Workplace Learning Studies

Researchers and practitioners from HR and learning studies and other related areas such as economics, management, sociology, and psychology have long argued for the significance of organizational learning (OL) and workplace learning (WPL) [7]. OL and WPL appear when organizations and people in workplaces undergo, and are confronted with, changes in the circumstances of how knowledge, competencies and experiences are built, shared, and applied in the organization or amongst individuals in the workplace [8][9][10]. In the research, OL and WPL are defined in different ways, with no consensus on a single definition [7][9]. Studies that theorize typologies of learning in organizations demonstrate the existence of different philosophical views on the theoretical and practical phenomenon of learning in organizations and workplaces, such as functionalistic and practice-based views [11][12]. These views construct specific philosophical underpinnings for how to approach sustainability in organizational and workplace learning, for example, as a concrete entity that can be measured and managed as a structural facet or as an emergent feature that is socially constructed in practice.
A functionalist approach encompasses behavioral or cognitive learning processes through which it is hoped to, sometimes normatively, explain and change an individual, team or organization’s routines or theories-of-use regarding, for example, the realization of sustainability, thus showing how learning can be managed in a sustainable way. The theme of sustainability in a functionalistic approach is generally focused on explaining and managing how organizations adapt to changes measured from economic performance outputs as a response to different types of learning input, e.g., from the implementation of new routines or procedures based on processing experiences and feedback. Measures – and success criteria – look at changes in, for instance, productivity, strategy realization, and/or effectiveness. Another dominant understanding of sustainability within a functionalistic approach is tied to how an organization manages to balance exploitative and explorative learning processes in organizations or creating learning systems that can realize double loop learning processes [13][14][15].
A different understanding of learning comes from a practice-based approach, which refers to learning that takes place through joint and shared practices in the organization, but still utilizing the tools of learning at the individual and social levels. A practice-based approach to practices of sustainability – and the changes thereof – constitute the focus for how to view this phenomenon as constructed and enacted in concrete interactions under specific social, cultural, and material conditions. These general theoretical framings of learning in organizations or workplaces thus shape this research’s descriptive and analytical potential, as most identified papers employ the above-mentioned functional approach in studies of OL and WPL and perspectives on sustainability within these studies.
Overall, OL and WPL studies has utilized four different perspectives in approaching sustainability associated with learning: (1) balance perspective, (2) dimensional perspective, (3) integral perspective, and (4) outcome perspective. These four perspectives are partly overlapping, but they can provide a general starting point for looking further at these associations. It is also known that sustainability in OL and WPL is heavily influenced by normative statements. For example, which elements are needed to become a sustainable organization, emphasizing the outcome perspective. However, analytical studies into what is theoretically or empirically meant by sustainability are still uncertain and tentative, the concepts of OL and WPL lack coherent definitions, and sustainability as an integral part of them was taken for granted. 
One important feature is how to become an organization that has the capacity for continuous learning and change as an important illustration of sustainable development. OL and WPL should be seen as contextualized and situated [6][16][17][18], and, due to the context-specific nature of sustainability in WPL and OL, achieving sustainable development should not be idealistic and “one model fits everywhere and everyone”. We need to think about and specify what different stakeholders on all levels mean when they talk about sustainability or sustainable development and learning in their organizations and workplaces.


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