2020 vision of skills

10th December 2012


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Paul Suff reports on a panel discussion looking at the skills environmentalists will need by the end of the decade

The depth of knowledge and understanding environment professionals must demonstrate is constantly changing; by 2020 the skills required by the typical practitioner are likely to be very different from those needed today.

Acting as change agents and providing leadership on sustainability are likely be core features of the role and will require professionals to be become effective communicators and influencers. At the same time, employers will demand a deeper understanding of issues like resource resilience and climate change adaptation, and how they will impact the business. Changes to ISO 14001 could mean practitioners will have to adopt a more strategic focus.

By the end of the decade, it is also probable that environment professionals will increasingly have to balance technical knowledge with business acumen. If that shift occurs, what are the priorities? Can the environment professional be both a technical specialist and a broad business manager? How can the environment professional in 2020 retain control over the sustainability agenda?

To better understand the issues and to help build a profile of what the role of the environment professional in 2020 might look like, the environmentalist brought together five practitioners to elicit their views. They are: Bekir Andrews, group sustainability manager at infrastructure business Balfour Beatty; Claire Lea, IEMA’s director of membership strategy and development; Nigel Leehane, managing director at environmental consultancy CRA Europe; Mike Peirce, director of strategy and communications at the University of Cambridge programme for sustainability leadership; and Damon Tweedie, environment assessment manager at Tata Steel.

Separation of powers?

Claire Lea introduced the session by outlining IEMA’s perspective on future skills. She highlighted the launch last year of the environmental skills map, which a number of organisations are currently using.

“We worked with businesses, universities and training providers to map the knowledge and skills that environment professionals need today, but it also includes some future-proofing for tomorrow and the next decade,” she explains.

She adds that feedback on the map reveals that the environment people coming into organisations – particularly at the graduate level – often have great technical knowledge, but lack the soft skills that make them effective in driving the environmental, or more specifically the sustainability, agenda internally.

“As a result, we are seeing people entering the profession who already have the communication, managerial and influencing skills and who are buying the technical knowledge. I think that is something we might see more of in the future.”

Bekir Andrews provides evidence that the current skill set of many environment professionals lacks the requirements demanded by the rise of sustainability.

“On a day-to-day basis we employ environment professionals who work on compliance issues, provide advice on environment topics, conduct audits, capture data, and run training sessions. But they tend to have a quite different skill set to the sustainability managers, who will work strategically across the business. We find that the sustainability managers tend to be the ones who engage with different groups in the organisation, and are far more influential,” he says.

Views are mixed on whether the need for a broader set of skills will result in the management of the environment and sustainability agendas diverging into separate functions over the next few years.

“That is happening in our construction division,” reports Andrews. “The environment compliance and audit people sit in the health, safety and environment team, while the sustainability team is separate and focuses more on strategic thinking, positive action and disseminating information. We recognise that the skill sets of the environment professionals are around environmental limits; sustainability managers have a role through tracking performance across all three areas [of sustainability] and having overall responsibility for ensuring things get done.”

Damon Tweedie at Tata agrees that a division is starting to materialise and is likely to widen, but is not sure separation is a positive development. “I think the split is inevitable, but whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable,” he says. “I’d still like to think they would continue to work closely together. It’s paramount that the link between the two remains.”

Andrews reports that at Balfour Beatty there are good communication channels between the health, safety and environment (HSE) and sustainability teams, but that dealing with the day-to-day environmental compliance issues is becoming increasingly the responsibility of the HSE team.

Tweedie explains that the marketing department at Tata Steel is currently driving the sustainability agenda, with support from the environment function. “I would be loath to see that gap widen,” he says.

“Embedding sustainability at the heart of the organisation is where I think the environment function has a real role to play going forward. Certainly the awareness of sustainability in Tata is growing, and environment professionals should be helping to drive and push levels of awareness further.”

Although Nigel Leehane sees no reason why environment practitioners could not take on a broader remit, disseminating knowledge and understanding, and helping to implement the sustainability strategy, he questions whether that should be the only career path to follow. “We’re asking people whose skill set is mainly around operational performance to take on a strategic role, where they might not feel comfortable.

“I think it comes down to the individual. If they have the aspiration and confidence to take on that role they will get the necessary skills. Others will be happy to remain in their environment silo just dealing with operational issues,” says Leehane.

Nonetheless, Leehane wants to see the environment professional deeply involved in developing and delivering organisations’ sustainability strategies. “Personally I think there is a risk if people with no real understanding of environment management are moving into sustainability just because of their communications background – waxing lyrical about the organisation’s environmental performance without understanding the technical issues,” he warns.

Similarly Mike Peirce believes sustainability gives the environment profession a way to break out of its compliance pigeonhole.

“I think that even in those organisations that have taken strong leadership stances on sustainability and have made it a key strategic objective, there are still enormous gaps in knowledge about what sustainability means and the skills to actually deliver it,” states Peirce. “That provides a huge opportunity for environment professionals to demonstrate why sustainability is important to the business and its sector.”

Peirce says this will require practitioners to emerge from the confines of the environment department and become visible in the business. “You can’t make sense of something only in your own department. That doesn’t work. You don’t have the influence you need if you’re confined only to the HSE team.”

He subscribes to the view that environment practitioners should play to their strengths and build on their technical knowledge to persuade the organisation to embrace sustainability rather than take on a role that does not fully utilise their existing skill set. “They shouldn’t try to become the procurement person, for example, because that’s not their role. Rather, they should show procurers why sustainability matters.”

Lea asks whether the revision of 14001 – which is likely to require a closer alignment between an environment management system (EMS) and business strategy – will mean environment practitioners have to take on the kind of strategic roles that are more common in the sustainability function.

“It depends how successful the revision is in elevating environmental management to a strategic level,” replies Leehane. “That’s the aspiration of the ISO group working on the revision, but we’ll have to see what actually emerges in the draft standard in 2015. I do hope it succeeds in pushing the barriers and provides environment professionals with more of an opportunity to be involved at a strategic level.

“Thinking more about products and services, not just operational control, is a key feature of the revision, so could provide practitioners with a way of engaging the rest of the organisation on such issues.”

Peirce also accepts the idea that changes to the international standard could provide those involved in an EMS with the chance to expand their role, though he offers the following note of caution: “Most leaders will prioritise an understanding of the wider strategic context within which their organisation is operating. 14001 may be an excellent tool, but by itself is not going to transform the organisation.”

Complex environment

The potential flip side of any separation between environment and sustainability is that the generalist role in large organisations could disappear as the focus switches to specialist positions. The panel is seeing evidence of this already.

“From our perspective, the environmental skill sets that are acquired now are becoming more and more specific and specialised,” reports Andrews.

Tweedie too is seeing a move towards more specialist roles. “We’ve got a job family developing, with effectively a dual career path: a managerial route, with traditional environment management-type roles on the one hand, and, on the other, policy and strategy-type roles.

“At the same time, we’ve also got the more technical, and research and development type environment functions, which act as the internal consultancy.”

He uses the example of life-cycle assessment (LCA) to illustrate why more specialist roles may be emerging. “Increasingly we’re being called on to demonstrate how our products perform against rivals or how steel performs against alternative products, so we’ve had to ‘grow’ a team of experts just to deal with LCA,” he explains. “LCA is a very niche skills set.”

Peirce believes it is inevitable that large organisations will either develop specialist environmental roles or buy in that support. As someone working in a large global business, Tweedie agrees: “Multinational businesses are going to have to develop specialisms.”

As well as the emerging split between environment and sustainability, the trend towards individuals developing specialist knowledge and skills is being driven by the rising complexity of the environment agenda. “That is one of the challenges facing the environment profession,” acknowledges Lea. “Environmentalists have got a huge job to do in terms of clarifying the complexity.”

“People tend to see the environment as just one area and do not understand the complexity and depth of the issues that environment practitioners have to deal with,” comments Andrews.

“If you’re dealing with compliance issues, such as the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency (CRC) scheme, that’s one thing, but if you’re also asked to deal with the retrofit of a building, it is a completely different scenario, requiring a wholly different skills set. Or if you have to look into energy-servicing contracting, that’s something else entirely and not something you can quickly understand. That’s why you need specialists. I think there is a huge piece of work to do just highlighting the complexity of the environment profession. And, as it evolves, it will become more multifaceted.”

“We’ve had to separate roles precisely because of growing complexity,” reports Tweedie. “We have people looking at air, water or waste, for example. I think it is impossible for one individual to be fully conversant and informed on all the new legislation coming out, particularly in a fairly large organisation.”

Leehane can only see the demand for specialists rising further in the future, particularly in organisations with global operations. “Rather than deregulation, environment practitioners in global companies are likely to be facing more complex regulation, as developing countries are likely to introduce more sophisticated environmental regulatory regimes by 2020,” he declares.

He also believes that moves in the UK and elsewhere to deregulate will not necessarily reduce practitioners’ workloads in the coming years. “Even if there is a reduction in the number of regulations, will that actually impact on environment professionals in terms of ensuring their organisations are still compliant with what remains? I don’t think so.

“The complexity of legislation is probably still going to be as immense. Environment practitioners will still be dealing with discharges and waste documentation, for example. It may be easier to understand the regulations, but what they require organisations to do is unlikely to be any simpler.”

Peirce sees a future in which organisations will demand that their in-house environment professionals have the ability to make sense of the complexity for the business. “It will increasingly become a role where you do have to understand everything that is going on, as well as have the ability to engage with the rest of the organisation and explain why a particular issue is strategically relevant.”


Despite the emergence of specialist positions and niche skills, there is a general acceptance among panel members that all environment/sustainability roles will require a similar set of generic capabilities. “They all have very different skill sets. But common to all is the need for softer skills, which I was happy to see was included in the IEMA skills map,” notes Tweedie.

“It’s the ability to influence and negotiate. If we want our environment practitioners to be at the heart of change, then they need those skills. They need to be able to sell the business case and get senior managers on board. They need the business skills as well as the interpersonal skills.”

Peirce too sees value in environment practitioners having softer skills, such as good communication and influencing capabilities, irrespective of whether their role focuses on one area or has a broader remit.

“Environmentalists will increasingly be expected to have these skills and they could be real assets. Being able to tell a story about the place of business in society, which is a complex one and different from the traditional business model, will become increasingly attractive to business leaders,” he states.

“There is a very positive story about what the environment profession can bring to businesses. That’s an optimistic view on where the profession could be in 2020. Essentially, it’s about becoming a change agent in the organisation.”

He outlines how the executive courses and business platforms run by the University of Cambridge programme for sustainability leadership help senior managers to develop and deliver a compelling story, and says this is something all environment professionals should aim to carry out.

“Even where we work with leaders on a specific issue around climate policy, for example, there can be a tremendous amount of learning through engaging with their peers in other companies. It’s the ability to explain and to talk to others about an issue that is crucial.”

Lea agrees that environment professionals will have to become better storytellers. “They’re going to have to take scientific and technical aspects, and deliver them into the business in a way that will make people listen and then do something different,” she says.

She hopes that as the low-carbon economy emerges and all jobs are done in a “greener” way, awareness will widen of environmental issues, helping practitioners to get their message across.

Andrews has seen this occurring in Balfour Beatty. “We’ve been on a journey, having set our roadmap and 2020 vision in 2009. Our first roadmap established a clear set of sustainability targets for 2012. I’ve been visiting our various operating businesses with KPMG auditing performance. Although overall progress has been good, we have found that those business units that had not offered training on sustainability to all of its staff were further behind.

“Generally, where business units had completed our online e-learning course – which is about ‘our collective responsibility’ and is focused on our 2020 vision – there was much greater awareness in the business,” he explains.

“As soon as a business unit completes the online course, things change. The speed of change improves. People better understand what the company is trying to achieve. The buy-in at senior management level is greater. And progress against the roadmap targets takes a quantum leap.”

In addition to improving their softer skills, the panel is unanimous in its view that environment professionals need to better understand how businesses work and how to deliver change.

“I think organisations as a whole, as well as individual practitioners, will need a complex set of skills in this area,” asserts Peirce. “It will not be sufficient, other than at the most junior role, to think of yourself just as an environment practitioner. To think about the waste or water issues, for example, is also to think about social issues. It just doesn’t make sense to think of the environmental impacts in isolation.

“Essentially, if an environmentalist is going to relate water security, for example, to business needs, he or she has to be talking about the wider context or it won’t make sense in terms of the risks or opportunities for the business. Organisations will need expertise that is cross-cutting. And those experts will have to be able to tell an increasingly complex story. It’s more than being a good communicator; it’s about why it matters to your business, your industry and your region.”

Leehane agrees. “Yes, it’s broader than just communication skills. It’s about understanding the business imperatives. I did an MBA a few years ago because I wanted to understand more about how businesses operate and be able to communicate effectively in ‘business language’,” he explains.

From his past experiences, Andrews believes environmentalists are generally poor at getting across a good business case. “They often completely forget to quantify the benefits of the work that they’ve done. So they fail to effectively engage other parts of the business or clients.”

He also says they need to understand how to prioritise potential projects rather than just their value. “Just because something has a payback doesn’t mean you should do it. I really struggle at times to get people to understand that. There are other things that might have a much better return on investment and are a far greater priority.”

In terms of delivery, Tweedie believes many practitioners need to improve their project management skills. “It’s all very well having the ideas and the business case, but you also need to take that project and deliver. That’s increasingly an area where we see a skills gap,” he says.

Decision makers

Although all of the panel members can envisage environment practitioners with sufficient aspiration having greater influence in their organisations as we head into the next decade, few believe more members of the profession will have a seat on the board in 2020.

“I do not yet see significant evidence of environment professionals taking board positions,” says Peirce. “But I do see more senior management teams saying we need more environmental expertise in the senior team.”

Leehane agrees that boards will need to improve their understanding of environment issues and believes the profession is well placed to help. “Environmental experts in the organisation should have a role in framing senior management training, so it is specific to the business, its activities and its operations,” he says.

“I think that’s right and is already happening,” notes Peirce. “Very often it has been a sustainability person that has encouraged a senior colleague to come on one of our sustainability leadership courses. Often the message from the sustainability function to senior management is that to get things done in the organisation it needs the board to fully understand the issues as well.

“I guess the key is that there has to be competence across the senior team to reflect on these issues, so they can make sensible decisions.”


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