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Environmental Management System and Electronic Communication: Is it the Need of the Hour?

Ambika Zutshi1 and Andrew Creed2

1 Deakin University, Bowater School of Management & Marketing, Faculty of Business & Law, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria 3125. Email
Deakin University, Bowater School of Management & Marketing, Faculty of Business & Law, Princes Highway, Warrnambool, Victoria 3280. Email


Implementation and certification of Environmental Management Systems (EMS) is a reality for many businesses. Communication with an organisation’s stakeholders is a required element of any EMS. In the last five years companies have steadily moved towards integrating their different management systems, such as quality, environmental, and occupational health and safety, in an attempt to reduce their costs and increase efficiency. Legislation requires extensive reporting in each of these areas, so compliance is another important driver. During this period, communication by digital technology, or electronic communication, has gained prominence and acceptance amongst all groups of people including businesses primarily as a means to disseminate crucial EMS information to geographically diverse employees in a cost effective and instantaneous manner. Some perspectives have emerged to suggest that change processes in organisations may be hindered or helped in various ways through the application of digital technology in EMS. There are, however, gaps in the literature that document the impact and effectiveness of electronic communication amongst EMS stakeholders. In this paper we will discuss employees as one of the major stakeholders and whether the move to electronic communication has been assisting or hindering transformations in awareness and understanding of issues amongst employees. We highlight opportunities and challenges presented by an increased use of electronic communication in light of the environmental and climate change debates, which underpin EMS.


Employees, Digital, Information, Stakeholders, Compliance, ISO 14001, Change

Environmental Management System

The last few decades have witnessed a revolution in organisational structure, thinking, culture and working systems. Companies are striving to gain and maintain their market and competitive advantage globally and accordingly are ready to incorporate any practical method. Implementation and subsequently certification with various management systems and standards (such as ISO 9000 series) (Florida, 1996) are being used to gain market share and other cost savings as well as reflect general social concern for improving the impact of organisations on the environment. Adoption of Environmental Management Systems (EMS) such as ISO 14001 has been the trend in the last decade and has been identified to be accompanied by both tangible and intangible benefits concurrently. EMS can be defined as “part of an organisation’s management system used to develop and implement its environmental policy and manage its environmental aspects” (14001:2004, 2004, p.2). International competition, increase in fines and other liabilities, pressure from the stakeholders (see Berry & Rondinelli, 1998) such as the government, employees, and not to mention the community, is adding more fuel to the fire and pressuring organisations to adopt some form of EMS. Environmental management is not an area that can be overlooked or avoided by the industries if they wish to survive in the business environment, whether in chemical, construction, manufacturing, electronic, retail or even service sectors. Even though the adoption of a formal EMS such as ISO 14001 is voluntary in nature, it is increasingly becoming a prerequisite if an organisation is to enter and survive in the business world.

In both manufacturing and service sectors, organisational “stakeholders include a wide range of entities who directly or indirectly provide support or resistance to the accomplishment of project objectives” (Walker 1999, p.233). In this paper we focus on employees as one of the major stakeholders, and whether the move to electronic communication has been assisting or hindering the awareness and understanding of issues amongst employees. ISO 14001 comprises of five elements: Environmental policy; Planning; Implementation and operation; Checking and corrective action; and Management review. Communicating with various internal and external stakeholders forms an intricate part of the ‘Implementation and operation’ element of EMS and accordingly needs to be addressed as part of EMS. Even though EMS is becoming a part of organisation’s strategy, we should not forget that this is not a new concept. Where individuals and organisations have been innovatively improving their operations using aspects of the five elements, then they now need to bring them together under the EMS umbrella.

Role of Employees in EMS / System Implementation

The significant, intricate and irreplaceable role of staff in the company operations, especially during times of change, is widely cited (Hughes, 2006; Kidman, 1991; Senior and Fleming, 2006). It is common knowledge and experience of numerous companies that employees need to be involved as early and as closely as possible before any change is introduced. Interviews with industry managers representing a number of sectors including manufacturing, construction, service, pharmaceutical, found that employees generally played a more proactive role during the implementation than the planning stages of EMS adoption process (CEO Forum Group, 2006). For instance, the employees assisted the environmental committee in identifying the environmental aspects and impacts within their respective areas (see for example CEO Forum Group, 2006). The nature of one’s role naturally affects the type of communication that occurs in fulfilling that role. Where one interacts in the same geographic space and works in close proximity to others, face-to-face discussion is probably the best way to communicate. If the working environment and staff are dispersed over wide distances, then electronic communication will offer some advantages. If the implementation tasks are technical and involve significant computational and memory storage requirements, then a richer technological basis exists and electronic communication again becomes an efficient method. The reality in EMS implementation is normally a combination of complex and simple tasks conducted by staff, some of whom could be quite proximal and others spread across multiple plants.

Communication and Change Management implications for EMS

Communication between two human beings is essential to satisfy ‘social’ needs of our species. We converse with others to share and exchange ideas, concepts, and discuss issues in both personal and professional lives. Within an organisation, communication is required to maintain its survivability and sustainability by ensuring that targets (set by top or middle managers) are achieved. Adding to this dynamism is the fact that increased acceptance of digital media in all walks of lives has changed the way we interact and share information. In an organisational context, this has transformed the relationships between managers and employees. Information technology is accompanied with a number of advantages (Metcalfe, 1997; Koh et al, 2007; Cakir, 2002), however these are not without pitfalls such as issues of trust and loss of intellectual capital (Adam, 2005; Coffey & Hoffman, 2002).

All of this tends to elevate the issue of change management. Waddell, Cummings and Worley (2004) agree that adaptation to change is a survival mechanism and the role of communication in mediating the flow of data is pivotal. EMS implementation is a change process. People and organisational culture need to change for EMS elements to be implemented and for them to be practiced. Having a fabulous system only on paper is of no practical use to any of the stakeholders and does not fulfil any of its purposes to improve organisational performance and reduce its operations’ detrimental impacts on the environment. Senior and Fleming (2006) remind of the organizational development process and the view that stimulus for change may be based in the external environment, but the ‘how to’ of change comes from the social interrelationships internal to the organisation. Graetz, Rimmer, Lawrence and Smith (2006, p.203) concur and link human resource development to organisational development with recognition of organisational learning being crucial to achieving meaningful transformations. Senge (1990) has done much to promote the idea of the ‘learning organisation’ as one where people are at once open and responsive to new ideas and adaptations. This is a kind of idealised view of the way that transformation happens and depends on communication speed and accuracy. EMS implementation as a transformational process requires the ‘double-loop’ learning approach described by Argyris and Schon (1974, pg.19). This is the foundation of the learning organisation and builds upon models of hermeneutics. When Habermas (1998, p.162) states that, “Hermeneutics is both a form of experience and grammatical analysis at the same time,” this unequivocally ties communication to the heart of management experience. Nothing that is achieved by human organisation is done without communication and interpretation of intention from one person to another. The risk exists that the wrong type of communication could be selected for a certain function, the wrong interpretation is made, and a sub-optimal performance is the result. It is well recognised that resistance to change is common among people everywhere (Waddell et al, 2004; Lewin, 1948), and yet, it is obviously in the interests of the environment and the organisation to ensure peak performance through timely and appropriate methods of communication and resultant reflections.

The authors’ research findings suggest use of a combination of communication mediums, written, oral and personal, to inform employees of the various aspects of any system implementation, including the progress made on various projects. In views of a manager at Visy Industrial Packaging in Drouin, Victoria, interviewed by Creed and Swanson (2006), communication is crucial to operational success. He reinforced this by commenting that: “Good .. communication… is learned through painful example lessons. .. I’ve always responded to the negative … outcomes of poor communication. It’s very painful when you realise you haven’t communicated effectively, and the feedback comes back and hits you.” The ambivalent nature of change is highlighted in this example. On the one hand, success is sought, on the other painful experience can happen, which is not to say organisational learning cannot come from tough times. There is much at stake in improving organisational performance and the stakes are magnified when an EMS is involved. We cannot afford to harm the ecological environment through preventable mishaps. The communication function is critical and worthy of daily quality control. Further evidence emerges from water management and drought issues in Australia. South East Queensland, for instance, is facing level 5 restrictions. The question here is not purely about lack of rainwater; rather, whether we as society’s representatives, organisational employees, are properly communicating to find and implement solutions. One side of the argument involves the style and medium of communication and on the other side rests our personal egos and political agendas that may be focussed on short-term incentives instead of long-term greater good of all.

Information Technology and Communication: Does One assist or Hinder the Other?

Every communication medium can distort a message. Brown (2002) describes a sociological shift in which technology that once merely supported the individual is now actually helping define relationships between individuals. This supports the contention by McLuhan (1964) that the media of the message is as significant in communication theory as the message itself. The media changes meaning and interpretation. This is a compelling point when we want personnel to receive important procedural messages, since the way such instructions are transmitted can affect how they will be received (see Sproull &Kiesler, 1986). It goes to the core of change management. Since the communication function is so critical to transformation, the authors recommend that for a smooth, fast and successful implementation and, more importantly, maintenance of EMS (regardless of whether it is certified) employees should be involved as early as possible and if practical even during the planning stages. This is because staff has a better understanding of the on-site activities and can accordingly provide constructive input (see Petts et al, 1998). This involvement will also assist in reducing resistance to the changes during the implementation stages (see Heller, 1998 Human Relations Model). Employees should be trained and made aware of the EMS elements and its significance for the company’s business. The difference between environmental aspects and impacts and their identification should also be part of the employees’ training program. This training can be conducted in a number of different ways, depending on the size of the organisation, the type of project, and the extent of aspects-impacts within the sector. Training will assist in increasing awareness, knowledge and understanding for employees, thus reducing resistance during the implementation of the new system. In addition to being informed and involved, employees also need to feel ownership of the process of systems change, including EMS. This necessitates managers finding motivational factors (social, mental and physical dimension) (Anderson, 1998), to encourage their employees. In views of Whitener et al (1998) these motivational factors will only work if there is trust between the management and the employees, based on the agency of social exchange theories.


Communication is essential for effective functioning of any organisation and, when going through a change process, the type of medium used to gather and disseminate information can significantly impact the success or failure of the process. Electronic communication in its various forms is here to stay, irrespective of whether individual employees have a love-hate relationship with it. The imperative for the managers is to select the best possible and practicable medium to correspond with their employees’ needs, motivations and preferences. At the end of the day, we cannot forget that without informed and empowered employees, there can be no successful organisational change and subsequent improvement of the bottom line. We thus need to remind ourselves that communication is a means to celebrate our successes, for example, the initiatives undertaken by employees in improving the ecological environment, whilst at the same time improving our organisational bottom-line. Communication is a critical medium to discuss and address challenges and hurdles faced by various employees in all organisational systems and warrants careful management.


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