At the recent World Appreciative Inquiry Conference (WAIC) 2019 hosted in Nice, France I was fortunate to meet Megan Buchter, director of the Fowler Center for Business at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio, USA. Although it was a brief encounter, I was heartened to hear Megan’s story and the positive impact her work with AIM2Flourish is having on the global challenges we are currently facing. There is a wonderful momentum set in motion by the AIM2Flourish program that is greatly contributing to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals designed to foster a more sustainable future for us all. Megan is our voice from the field and shares her story in this issue of AI Practitioner.
AIM2Flourish: An Agent of World Benefit
Megan Buchter is the Director of the Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. Megan is passionate about education and helping students to see themselves as change agents and leaders for world benefit. She runs the Fowler Center’s AIM2Flourish program, supporting a global network of professors and students in highlighting stories of businesses striving to achieve the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
In general, people don’t have the best opinion of business. This worldview is shaped by the stories we hear about business in the news. Stories of scandals, corruption, pollution, hostile takeovers and unreasonably large bonuses dominate the media when you hear about business. These stories lead us to believe that businesses want to make money at any cost; that the purpose of business is nothing more than maximizing profits for shareholders. If you listen to those stories, how could you ever think the purpose of business could be anything good?
Even though terms like “corporate social responsibility”, “sustainability”, “flourishing”, and “business for good” are becoming increasingly heard, there are still many people in the world, including many business students, who don’t believe in a purpose for business other than profits, money and pleasing shareholders. The Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit created the AIM2Flourish program to help students see the world differently. We teach students that companies that care about their employees, the environment and their communities actually do better financially as well.
AIM2Flourish is an experiential learning assignment, taking students out of the classroom to interview a business leader about a business that is doing good for the world and doing well financially. The mission of AIM2Flourish is to change students’ mindsets about the goal of business from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, and we do this using Appreciative Inquiry.
AIM2Flourish uses AI as an interview technique to help students see the positive aspect of business. They ask business leaders about their high-point moments, ones where they felt most alive, effective, engaged and passionate. They ask the business leader what the motivation and inspiration was behind their innovation. And they ask about the positive impact the company is making. These questions lead the interviewee into telling stories. The story behind the creation of the company or the specific business innovation: their high point story. Stories of the impact they see their company having. The result is that by asking these strengths-based questions and combining the power of storytelling, students are able to imagine themselves as leaders for world benefit.
Additionally, AIM2Flourish was the world’s first program designed for higher education to incorporate the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to teach students about business’ potential to be a force for good. The SDGs address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. The SDGs are interconnected and designed to leave no one behind. They are designed to achieve a more peaceful and prosperous society and planet and will take all sectors to achieve the goals – including business. Early reports stated that developing solutions to the SDGs could unlock trillions of dollars in profits. That means that there are actual financial incentives out there for businesses to do good.
The magic of AIM2Flourish is the combination of AI with the SDGs. Students learn about the SDGs – and are presented with the world’s biggest challenges. Then they search for a business that is meeting one or more of the SDGs. Keep in mind that the SDGs cover a broad range of topics, everything from ending poverty in all forms, to ensuring clean drinking water for all populations, to eliminating corruption and creating decent work opportunities are covered in this “to-do” list. Students have uncovered amazing companies, including:
- EcoDom in Mexico is creating building materials out of plastic waste.
- SmartPaani in Nepal is building affordable rainwater catchment systems in an area of the world suffering from clean water shortages.
- Greyston Bakery in the United States has revolutionized an open hiring model where those in need of a job can be hired without question into their background. Greyston is working with other companies to help spread this hiring model.
- Bureo in Chile is making skateboards out of fishing nets that they are collecting from the ocean. They are also educating coastal populations about the dangers of throwing fishing nets and other plastics into the ocean.
- Lucky Iron Fish in Canada creates small cast-iron, fish-shaped figures that can be put into a pot of boiling water and deliver the daily recommended dose of iron.
- Buza Ice Cream in Israel was founded by an Arab Muslim and an Israeli Jew to demonstrate that even people with differences can work together peacefully.
Each of these stories is published on the AIM2Flourish website as a means to tell a positive story about business and demonstrate the power of business to do good in the world and do well financially. And each story was written by students based on an Appreciative Inquiry interview they conducted.
It’s no surprise to AI practitioners that asking generative questions leads to conversations brimming with possibilities and inspiration. However, for many of the students being tasked with an AIM2Flourish assignment, this is their first introduction to AI and this new type of conversation. When each story is submitted to AIM2Flourish, we offer the students a chance to reflect on their assignment and process. We hear from students about the impact that AI had on them and their assignment. Students are amazed at how using Appreciative Inquiry deepens their conversations with the interviewees and allows the interviewee to share their passion.
From an Appreciative Inquiry perspective I really got inspired in how the questions helped open up and deepen the conversation.
Case Western Reserve University student, Autumn 2018
By using AI we also hear how students are able to connect with their interviewee’s story and relate those experiences to themselves.
I have known Garett for many years and had never drawn the connection between his high point experience and his current work in such a direct way. I especially appreciate his sharing that one of the most vital elements of his high point experience was feeling like his intuition was validated. This perspective has given me a boost to trust my own intuition more. I am learning about how using appreciative inquiry creates lift individually and collectively – lift that can be the scaffolding to build transformational change within organizations.
Case Western Reserve University student, Autumn 2018
As mentioned earlier, there is a magic in using AI to discover how businesses are meeting the UN SDGs. By hearing stories of passion and what’s going well within a company, students can make positive connections to the 17 SDGs.
[The company] didn’t know about the SDGs at the beginning of the interview, but through appreciative inquiry our group was able to make connections to four of the UN goals that [the company] exhibits through their innovations. Near the end of the interview the owners were very receptive to how their innovations stack up to the UN’s sustainability goals. Going forward in my professional career I know I will be interested to learn how companies aim to help to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
University of Guelph student, Autumn 2018
Finally, we see that through the use of AI students realize their own contributions to changing the story of business and celebrating the good that business is able to do in the world.
Kindness is rarely published in the media. With an Appreciative Inquiry approach, we learn to hear, to feel and how we can spread this positive action that has impact to others.
IPMI International Business School student, Spring 2017
The use of Appreciative Inquiry as an interview tool is changing the conversations that students are having with business leaders and changing their perspectives. From my own experience completing the AIM2Flourish assignment, I know that I never would have connected as well with the entrepreneurs I spoke with had I been asking more typical critical interview questions about challenges instead of strengths and about business tactics instead of inspirations. I know that my personal experience with AIM2Flourish is not unique. The students’ story below is another example. And there are thousands more like it on the website.
As students, we found that whenever we were tasked with the word “interview,” we were automatically inclined towards a type of questioning that had an uncomfortable atmosphere of grilling the interviewee with challenging questions. This type of interview, appreciative inquiry, felt so much more like a conversation that both sides of the table were willing to talk about. We are used to seeing businesses headlining in the news not because they have done something good, but mostly something that requires the public’s attention to fix. Our AIM2Flourish experience gave us a new perspective that we should put a spotlight on businesses that are working towards global development instead of those who are doing the opposite. That way it provides an incentive for them as well to do more good for the coverage and support in exchange for good practice. Our career trajectory definitely changed in a way that affirms our already pre-existing social principle that we should be working at/for businesses that we would be willing to publish as an AIM2Flourish story.
Loyola Marymount University students, Spring 2018
Business has the ability to be innovative, to be agile and to rapidly satisfy new needs. Market demand is growing for innovations to achieve the UN SDGs and what other sector has the resources to move so quickly and effectively to create new solutions? If you are an educator on a mission to teach your students about the potential of business to do good in the world, consider using AIM2Flourish as a tool. The assignment combines the power of Appreciative Inquiry with the challenge of the UN’s SDGs, leading students to recognize that business contributions are creating a more peaceful and prosperous world and to discover what they themselves can contribute moving forward.