What Role Can IT Play In Corporate Sustainability?

What Role Can IT Play In Corporate Sustainability?

Over the next month I am back on the road (again), speaking at several green IT events in the U.S. and Europe. The audience at these events is primarily CIOs and IT leaders, with some representation from facilities, finance, marketing, and other functional areas. And while the bulk of the agendas are devoted to tactics and best practices for improving the energy efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint of IT infrastructure and processes, the organizers have invited me to do something different.

My pitch to IT organizations, at events and in the work I do directly for Forrester clients, is to think beyond the IT organization, to challenge themselves with a wider role across their entire enterprise. "What can IT do for the rest of the company?" in terms of assessing and improving its sustainability posture -- that is the mandate that IT leaders should be stepping up to. Are they up to it? And, are they up for it? While it's hard to give a single answer to those general questions, let me offer some data from Forrester's survey of IT professionals, conducted earlier this year, which illuminate the current state of IT's role.

The first thing to make clear is that there is an opening in most companies for sustainability leadership. Less than a quarter of the companies in our worldwide survey base reported that they had a dedicated Chief Sustainability Officer or equivalent executive function (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1

Secondly, IT organizations told us that they are already involved in both planning and executing corporate sustainability initiatives; 44 percent of them said they had a "central role" in doing so (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2

The third factor that helps cement the case for greater IT involvement in corporate sustainability is the coming shift from infrastructure to information. When we think green IT or greener operations of any sort, we tend to get right to the physical layer, the air-handling, the asset monitoring, the event capturing level of managing infrastructure. It's an important capability to get right, and represents a big opportunity for suppliers that can help make their customers' assets "smarter."

But the even more important capability is to aggregate, analyze, and report the information that results from wiring up all those assets. The quality, timeliness, granularity, and actionability of that information is what will separate successful initiatives from not-so-successful ones.

Think of sustainability in terms of the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley ("Sarbox") regulations that developed in the wake of the Enron meltdown. Capturing and reporting information about energy, carbon, and other resources will be a central challenge for all companies; the only variable is the timing based on the regulatory regime that exists in your part of the world. So what should IT leaders do to get ready to play a bigger role in corporate sustainability? In a word, partner. Develop internal alliances with your colleagues in facilities, finance, operations, and HR. Finance in particular is crucial since it typically has the keys to unlock budgetary silos and help different organizations share the investment risks, and cost-savings rewards, of improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions.

We're interested as always in your feedback and input on this score: Is your IT organization stepping up to broader enterprise-wide sustainability challenges? Why or why not? Drop us a line at [email protected] and let us know.

And I hope to see Greener Computing readers at these upcoming events: the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Data Center Efficiency Summit in San Jose on October 14, and the Green IT Expo in London on November 9.

Photo CC-licensed by fdecomite.