Upskilling for a sustainable future

30th May 2015


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Gabriel C K Lam

Lucie Ponting reports on how IEMA plans to update its skills map

Environment and sustainability professionals are perfectly placed to help organisations address the challengesand realise the opportunities that the "perfect storm" highlighted last year by IEMA presents. Under this scenario, the global business community is facing population growth, fluctuating costs of energy and materials, water stress, degradation and decreasing availability of natural resources alongside increasing incidents of climate-related weather events. If organisations are going to address these challenges, it is crucial that environment and sustainability professionals possess the knowledge, skills and experience to transform organisations, infrastructure, and products and services towards sustainability.

To this end, IEMA is refreshing and expanding the scope of its well-established skills map to help ensure all members, whether they are at the start of their career or experienced professionals, understand the knowledge and skills they need to lead the changes organisations need to make if they are to thrive in a sustainable economy. "Those businesses that survive the 'storm' are going to have to operate in an increasingly uncertain world," says Claire Kirk, head of professional standards at IEMA. "And while environment and sustainability professionals cannot make these issues go away, they will have a key role in helping their organisations recognise the threats and respond to the opportunities."

The contours of change

The skills map update forms part of IEMA's decision in 2013 to re-evaluate its membership levels and structure. This was reiterated in its Skills for a sustainable economy position statement in 2014, which called on "all professional bodies to review their standards and competencies to ensure they recognise the role their members will play in delivering the transformational change needed to enable a sustainable economy".

IEMA noted that: "Competence frameworks focused on current experience and historic demands may not be capable of delivering the skilled individuals needed to transition to a sustainable future." It suggested that key questions remained unanswered around the definition and application of the future business skills required to:

  • regularly deliver strategic decision-making influenced by long-term thinking;

  • enable organisations to succeed in developing and applying new business models;

  • allow organisations the ability to proactively engage in disruptive innovation; and

  • promote innovative sustainable solutions.

"In many ways, this latest review is part of our profession's journey," says Kirk. "IEMA has always moved and adapted to reflect changing demands on members and this is a continuation of that. For example, we started with environment management, assessment and auditing when three institutes came together to form IEMA; then we evolved to embrace environment sustainability; and now the natural step is to move on to include the social, economic and governance aspects of sustainability as well."

Embracing sustainability,strengthening environment

The skills map, first published in 2011, is a tool to help individuals and organisations consider the range of sustainability and environment skills they need at every level. "So it has to be responsive to changes in the marketplace, be up-to-date and stay relevant to business needs," Nick Blyth, policy and practice lead at IEMA, says.

Kirk notes that IEMA's plans for the skills map fit particularly with current thinking in the ISO 14001 revision. Many of the changes in the management standard reflect the need to embed environment into core business strategy across the organisation's value chain. "And the skills professionals need to do that are slightly different from implementing and overseeing an environmental management system in a more traditional way," she says. "With the focus in the new 14001 on leadership, there's a real opportunity for environment professionals to get firmly on the boardroom agenda. And our updated skills map and membership level review is about us supporting them to make that step up, as well as building stronger links throughout all areas of the organisation, such as finance or human resources."

Although the revised map will inevitably incorporate a broader range of issues, its focus on the environmental aspects of sustainability will not be diluted. "The environment challenges are obviously not going away," says Kirk. "In fact they are going to have more impact on organisations, but equally the governance, social and economic dimensions are increasingly coming to the fore for some organisations." These are touched on in the original map, but only at a basic level. "If we're going to get the transformation to sustainability, we've got to encompass all the aspects, finding sustainable solutions that resolve rather than trading off the three pillars against another," Kirk adds.

Market credibility

IEMA is still working on the content and presentation of the expanded skills map. "To inform the review process and ensure the new map has validity and credibility in the marketplace, we've consulted widely across sectors to see how organisations are transforming themselves towards sustainability," says Kirk. "We've also been examining and integrating the work being done by IEMA and GACSO to define corporate responsibility."

Blyth adds: "Over the past six months, we've engaged with our employers' forum [which brings together employers with large numbers of IEMA members] and with the advisory group we have with GACSO. We've also had support from external partners, such as UK standards body BSI, the Environment Agency and Ernst & Young in helping us to rethink the skills map." The higher education sector has also been involved through work with the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges. "Feedback from stakeholders so far has been very positive," says Blyth.

He emphasises that updating the skills map is an evolutionary process. "We're not starting afresh with a blank sheet of paper. People already using the current map will be familiar with and recognise the extended and updated version," he says.

The details are still to be finalised but the content of the new map will cover three key areas:

  • technical knowledge and skills - critical and emerging sustainability capabilities and skills divided into four subsets or pillars: environment, social, economic and business management/governance;

  • core skills - distinct skills sets relevant to anyone working in environment and sustainability, including communication, leadership for change, project and programme management, and problem-solving; and

  • core knowledge - fundamental knowledge and understanding of sustainability underpinning the work of all professionals.

"This structure is a complete evolution from the current skills map," explains Blyth. "As with the environment, there will be knowledge and skills in relation to social sustainability issues. For example, on the environment side, members get involved in measuring, assessing and auditing; they would do the same on the social side, getting involved in social audits or understanding and assessing the social risks an organisation faces. So there is some similarity in skills." Some of the core skills that cut across all areas are already in the skills map - such as communication and leadership for change - but the range is being expanded.

Depth and breadth

IEMA is not expecting members to have in-depth knowledge across the whole breadth of issues covered by the new map. "Environment will always have a clear and central pathway, and the skills map will help professionals plan and structure their progress. That is why it's more important than ever that we reflect a balance between depth and breadth when we think about how the skills map will inform future professional membership standards," says Blyth. "We need to ask: what will be the core areas to consider and what will be areas of specialisation?"

The review process will continue throughout 2015. IEMA is planning to share the draft skills map content during a series of workshops in June. "We are also thinking about the presentation of the revised map," says Blyth. "Because it will be much broader, we need to consider carefully the design of the framework and how it will work in practice.


  • members planning their own professional development;

  • employers recruiting environment professionals or preparing job descriptions;

  • recruitment agencies advising on recruitment of an environment professional;

  • HR or department heads developing graduate or management development programmes; and

  • organisations supporting the development and delivery of environment or sustainability knowledge and skills.

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