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Terry Porter’s Research Will Focus on the Social Processes of Sustainability Adoption in Business

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A University of Maine faculty member in the Maine Business School has received a Fulbright Scholarship for research at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom in spring 2014, focused on the social processes of sustainability adoption in business.

Terry Porter, an associate professor, focuses her management research on sustainability — the contributions of a business or organization to the vitality, diversity and balance of wider life-enhancing systems. Sustainability often it is equated with corporate social responsibility (CSR), where social, environmental and economic outcomes are as important as the financial bottom line.

“Sustainability in companies often is limited to reports on results and performance,” Porter says. “We hear about reduced carbon emissions, waste recycled and energy saved. Those are end-of-the-pipeline outcomes that are very important. But what we don’t know much about is how those decisions are made in the first place.

In her lens on sustainability in businesses, Porter’s focus is on the upstream, or initial social decision making processes that lead to measurable changes in sustainability performance and outcomes. These tend to be complex, idiosyncratic, and generated through the interactions of groups and teams. She explores aspects of the assumptions, perceptions, and interpretations of business decision makers in groups, and how these develop in discussions of sustainability policy making. The goal is to better understand sustainability development and decision-making through the atypical lens of social process analysis, and hence to provide practical action strategies for managers.

“I want to look at the microprocesses, the interpersonal exchanges between people in groups and how they evolve into decisions about sustainability,” she says. “That’s a constructive, unpredictable and very creative process we don’t understand. By understanding it better, we can be more effective in setting goals and objectives, and ultimately affect those performance outcomes.”

The Fulbright Scholar Program, established in 1946, is rigorous, with only a limited number offered based on academic merit and leadership potential. The UK makes only about 30 awards annually, and Porter is the sole scholar selected for the University of Cardiff, the fourth most highly regarded research university in the UK.

In her Fulbright research, Porter will team with organizational studies researchers Hugh Willmott at Cardiff and Andrea Whittle at Newcastle University. The team will examine the microsocial processes of sustainability adoption in business settings in the UK, where there is a culture of proactive corporate sustainability efforts, and compare those findings to data from a similar study of businesses in the United States.

Those U.S. businesses are Maine-based and pilot projects are ongoing in the months leading up to the UK research. Porter is working with businesses and nonprofit organizations statewide that have instituted or are considering the incorporation of sustainability initiatives.

At UMaine, Porter heads the Maine Business School’s Business and Sustainability Program. Her research has included work with small-business owners in rural Maine to better understand the personal and social factors that make a difference in business success and regional sustainable development.

In addition, Porter and UMaine Assistant Professor of Management Patti Miles are studying the long-term halo effect in CSR-committed companies. Their preliminary findings pointing to a link between CSR and sustainability practices and good management have been the subject of presentations, including some in the UK, and will be the focus of a journal article this fall.

“Sustainability in business is much needed and desired,” Porter says, “but it’s often a postscript in a company’s annual report. This research is aimed at helping increasing the commitment of businesses to sustainability.”

Contact: Margaret Nagle, 207.581.3745

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