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How to help IT and sustainability communicate better

I’ve contended for years that sustainability executives should call themselves the CTO, or Chief Translation Officer. That’s because their job is often to take the arcane language of sustainability (GHG, C-FACT, LCA, CSR, OMG) and turn it into something their co-workers understand. And when they don’t do that, the reaction from others in the organization can sound like Strother Martin in "Cool Hand Luke" ("What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”). Or even worse, the result is a silent shrug and continuation of BAU, or business as usual.

An example of this phenomenon surfaced in research we performed in conjunction with AT&T, highlighted in the recently released report, "Potential vs. Reality: Sustainability’s Value When Investing in Technology." We surveyed our 3,900+ strong GreenBiz Intelligence Panel and received responses from more than 300 of them as we asked about how Information and Communications Technology (ICT) decisions are influenced by their organization’s sustainability efforts.

The frustrating results of this research highlight tremendous opportunities in many companies for ICT and sustainability to come together in a way where the sum of their actions is greater than the parts. But it’s not happening in many organizations because the conversations are not taking place where they need to be.

The opportunity and the gap

Corporate ICT strategies are helping to transform businesses, making them more efficient and competitive. Our research pointed to numerous opportunities ranging from energy efficiency, operational resiliency, extreme collaboration and an increase in machine-to-machine communication that are rapidly changing how we think about operations. Only a few years ago, deploying autonomous trucks or "printing” service parts seemed to belong to the realm of science fiction.

The voice that sustainability can add to this conversation can at times provide the “&,” the additional justification that either can move projects forward or expand their impact on the company. But too often, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability teams are left out of the discussion. Slightly more than a third of sustainability executives surveyed said that their CIO had discussions with their CSR or sustainability team. And when asked to select from a list of benefits for different types of technology projects, sustainability-related benefits scored the lowest.

In the report, we highlight five strategies for working more closely with ICT executives and the broader C-suite. The lead advice is to learn how to speak the language of the business and how to take the goals and objectives of ICT and business unit leaders and provide support to show how meeting those goals also contributes to the organization’s sustainability efforts. In other words, learn how to take “their” strategy and make it “our” strategy. It’s sustainability judo and it might help avoid more failures to communicate.

Hear more at VERGE SF 2013

We’ll be discussing more of our research findings with AT&T’s John Schultz as well as representatives from Dell and San Diego Gas & Electric at our VERGE SF 2013 conference next week in a session called “Bridging the IT-Sustainability Gap.” Come join us and be part of the discussion.

Image of keyboard by mtkang via Shutterstock

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