Using Focus Groups of Sustainability Professionals to Validate the Key Competencies—Our Approach

The principal focus of this research project is how the key competencies in sustainability1)Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., & Redman, C. L. (2011). Key competencies in Sustainability: A reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science, 6(2), 203–218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0132-6 can best be attained2)Keeping in mind employability as well., but first we are seeking to validate our competence framework through various dialogues with stakeholders. These dialogues are taking place in parallel between the USA and Germany in line with the overall approach of this project to look at Sustainability programs both at Arizona State University (ASU) and Leuphana University (LUL). Interviews with exemplary Sustainability professionals and alumni of both programs are ongoing but given the format and time limitations do not enable a meaningful discussion of the key competencies in Sustainability with the stakeholders. Therefore, building off of what is being learned from the interviews, we carried out a focus group with a new set of Sustainability professionals and alumni at ASU on December 2, 2016. This effort was guided by the following questions:

  1. What are examples of tasks carried out by Sustainability professionals and how can those be linked to the key competencies?
  2. How was competence attained by the participants in the key competencies?
  3. Is there a gap between current sustainability professionals and the requirement for future professionals?
  4. Does having demonstrated attainment of the key competency support the employability of an individual and in what ways?

What We Did–In Brief

We selected an exemplary sample of Sustainability professionals who lived in the metropolitan area surrounding ASU and ended up with fourteen participants who could speak to the wide range of jobs a Sustainability professional might have to tackle. There was a mix of more senior personnel and fresh graduates, eight of them having gotten some type of degree from ASU’s School of Sustainability. The participants joined us for an hour and a half session on December 2, 2016.

Two groups of seven were created with a balanced mix of experience and job types in each one. Each group was led by a facilitator with a note taker and additional helper on hand. The session began with a welcome and a brief presentation explaining the key competencies in sustainability. Participants also had two page handouts on the key competencies as an additional reference source throughout the day. On a provided worksheet, participants were asked to write their three main Sustainability-related tasks and then to connect them to the key competence most relevant to that task.

From here on out the two groups ran independently, guided by facilitators working from the same script. The participants wrote their tasks on sticky notes and placed them on a poster under the key competence they believed to be most relevant for that particular task. This visual display of the group’s tasks and relevant key competencies was the focus of the first discussion. One or two tasks were picked out for each competence and the person who posted it was asked to explain the tasks and their reason for picking that particular competence. Probing follow-up questions were asked to explore the key competencies a bit deeper. Competencies with fewer tasks were the final discussion point for this first part.

Next participants were asked to pick one competency and describe how they themselves acquired competence in this. Everyone was given a chance to answer and a facilitated discussion among the groups took place afterwards. Finally, a short narrative of a future scenario was read which called for the hiring of a change agent in their community3)Imagine the year is 2030, when the UN sustainable development goals expire. The U.S. still faces sustainability challenges in government, industry, and civil society. Yet, a new grass-roots organization has formed to address them across the country, on the local scale. After much discussion, organizations across the Phoenix metro area have decided to join this organization. The decades-long drought continues to have significant detrimental impacts, and has strained relations between various communities. Likewise, the moratorium on flights brought on by the fuel crisis has resulted in a wide-reaching economic fallout. As representatives of your organizations, this new organization has turned to you to develop a profile for their official representative in your local community – a change agent, so to speak. They are looking for a recent graduate from ASU who can be your contact and get work done on the ground. . Each group was asked to work together to write a job description for this position. The facilitator pushed the participants to think about what would be different about this job description for 2030 versus something that they might advertise for today.

All in all it was a great day. In a future post we analyze the discussions and summarizing the key results.

References   [ + ]

1. Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., & Redman, C. L. (2011). Key competencies in Sustainability: A reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science, 6(2), 203–218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0132-6
2. Keeping in mind employability as well.
3. Imagine the year is 2030, when the UN sustainable development goals expire. The U.S. still faces sustainability challenges in government, industry, and civil society. Yet, a new grass-roots organization has formed to address them across the country, on the local scale. After much discussion, organizations across the Phoenix metro area have decided to join this organization. The decades-long drought continues to have significant detrimental impacts, and has strained relations between various communities. Likewise, the moratorium on flights brought on by the fuel crisis has resulted in a wide-reaching economic fallout. As representatives of your organizations, this new organization has turned to you to develop a profile for their official representative in your local community – a change agent, so to speak. They are looking for a recent graduate from ASU who can be your contact and get work done on the ground.