eBay’s 7 best practices for successful collaboration

eBay’s 7 best practices for successful collaboration

eBay and PayPal headquarters

Editor's Note: To learn about eBay's data center design using Bloom Energy's fuel cells, be sure to check out VERGE@Greenbuild, November 12-13.

The most successful corporate sustainability initiatives are driven by internal collaboration across organizational divisions as well as partnerships with external stakeholders to share mutual goals.

That in itself isn't a new concept for GreenBiz readers, but eBay's ongoing data center expansion and related energy sourcing strategy offers a vivid example of what that really means -- and what really works.

"The more allies you have, the better," said David London, senior director for US government relations at eBay, which is the group responsible for the company's energy policy.

London participated with two of his colleagues on a panel this week in New York at the annual BSR conference on sustainability and corporate social responsibility. The other panelists were Lori Duvall, global director for eBay's Green initiatives, and Jeremy Rodriguez, distinguished engineer of data center services.

First, some background. When it comes to managing power consumption, one of eBay's biggest focuses is its data centers, which account for 55 percent to 60 percent of the San Jose, Calif.-based company's carbon emissions.

"Working for a fast growing company makes sustainable initiatives tough," Duvall said. "You need data centers, but you need to make good choices about where to put them. That is driven by cost, but you get pushed to put data centers where the power isn't particularly carbon friendly. With any luck, our footprint will grow out of necessity. But we have to start asking ourselves -- what can we really do about it?"

The business reality is that eBay's expectations for data center reliability and latency (a fancy word for performance) pretty much trump most other concerns. Any serious e-commerce or Internet services provider must locate its data center in certain regions where they can have the best connections, Rodriguez said.

Image of eBay and PayPal headquarters in San Jose provided by Leon7 via Wikimedia Commons.

The catch is that many of the states that meet that siting requirement happen to be those where coal-fired power plants are particularly dominant.

Such was the case in Utah, the location for two of the company's latest data center investments – the LEED Gold certified facility in South Jordan in 2010 and another LEED Gold site planned for Draper.

So, why Utah? After all, right now, close to 94 percent of the state's electricity comes from coal.

The answer is closely tied to eBay's successful work there for the past five years with the state legislature to help reshape the state's renewable energy policy -- work that required close collaboration between the eBay data center planning team, its public policy group, the communications team, the finance department and pretty much every line-of-business head that had a stake in the new facility.

The problem was that Utah's previous energy sourcing law prevented non-utility energy consumers from buying electricity directly from renewable energy developers -- a policy that made it tough for eBay to use clean power to help control its growing carbon footprint.

"In our mind it was unacceptable for us not to have a policy for renewables," Rodriguez said.

So the company lobbied -- successfully -- to reshape that law. And in March 2012, Utah adopted a new policy -- one that makes more renewable energy available throughout the state without raising rates or taxes for Utah residents.

What was the secret to eBay's success? Here are 7 best practices that emerged from the panel discussion. They are specific to this situation, but its easy to see how they could apply broadly to pretty much any sustainability initiative.

Understand the business implications to build credibility inside and outside the company. Do the research to understand exactly how the plan could positively (or negatively) affect a product or service. "You can't just be an observer, you have to understand what the business is really about to be most effective," Duvall said.

Get other stakeholders involved. EBay made its voice heard in Utah along with Data Center Pulse (DCP), an organization that represents more than 1,000 businesses in 66 countries. So its arguments held more economic weight -- it wasn't just eBay's 1,500 Utah jobs at stake.

Involve the communications team immediately. Rather than focus on why Utah should reduce its dependence on coal, eBay spun its messaging around the economic opportunity involved with renewable energy -- how it might attract new employers, infrastructure development and so on. At eBay, the sustainability team actually reports up through the corporate communications function. "You need to make this about competition and economic development," London said.

Identify eager internal champions who can tell the story. Messaging should be shared internally as well as externally.If someone shares a passionate interest in the goal or cause, let him or her become an advocate, regardless of the person's exact role. "It's about finding the best people who will listen," Duvall noted. In Utah, the company kept employees closely abreast of its progress and was prepared to ask them to rally behind the company's cause if necessary (although it didn't need to do that, because the new law found overwhelming support).

Find a sympathetic legislator or public sector supporter. eBay collaborated closely with Republican State Senator Mark Madsen to do its homework, which included the formation of a working group that consisted of energy end users (like eBay and other DCP members), Rocky Mountain Power (the state’s largest electric utility), and a local renewable energy generator. All three of those stakeholders had a hand in writing Senate Bill 12, which became the foundation for the new policy.

Be patient. It took more than three years to convince Utah's major public utility that renewable energy was a worthwhile cause. But once eBay did, the company because a powerful ally.

Build on existing work. While many companies in the technology industry are secretive about their data center strategies, this is changing. "Don't be afraid to go outside your own company," Rodriguez said. "You will find someone outside your company that is just like you, facing the same problems, who may have thought about it in a different way."