Most discussions of technology enabling sustainability are based on assessments of technology improving the environmental performance of specific business operations.
Typical examples cited include reductions in fuel consumption and waste or improving efficiency to eliminate downtime. It can include targeting the legs of transport where a vehicle is empty. Alternatively, reducing the excessive energy consumption of a particular piece of machinery.
In addition to these examples of technology enabling sustainability, there’s a second concern of making the technology itself more sustainable. Both must be addressed to create a comprehensive sustainability strategy.
Technology enabling sustainability – the beginning
For most enterprises, the initial forays into sustainability focused on the compliance-driven need to track and record energy use and the associated carbon expenditure. This necessary step woke companies up to the fact that better environmental and energy practices could substantially improve operations, reducing costs and increasing profitability.
Technologies such as telematics revealed wasted journeys out on the road. Meanwhile, asset monitoring exposed plants and machinery that were consuming far too much energy due to poor maintenance. Elsewhere, the goal of a paperless office was revisited, and lean principles were reinvestigated to reduce expensive, bloated spending.
These early wins accelerated the Industrial Internet of Things. Companies sought to improve the feed of data into control systems that track energy use. They then moved one step further by inputting that data into management systems that suggest potential improvements.
Technology such as Salesforce Net Zero Cloud has shown how important and sophisticated this has become. It enables accurate and automated tracking of Scope 1 to 3 carbon emissions and the subsequent sustainability reporting.
These have been the first steps of an ongoing journey. In the modern context, businesses focused on sustainability now find themselves asking the question of ‘what are we not thinking about?’ to find new areas of improvement. They are using that to assess how they can tie sustainability into saving money or bettering their business.
Technology enabling sustainability – the evolution
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, working practices have become the central preoccupation of thousands of businesses. But traditionally, remote working was not seen as a sustainability issue. It was defined in terms of productivity and HR flexibility. This has proved to be short-sighted.
It has become evident that businesses do not need the large offices they own or lease. This arrangement promotes excessive travel to and from those offices. Web-based, software as a service (SaaS) collaborative tools, and the elimination of paper-based manual processes, have negated the need for most administrative buildings.
It has a profound, direct impact on the carbon emissions of businesses. It has reduced the environmental impact of the building itself and the energy it consumes. Other savings have come from the transport to and from the office and the support services required.
It is clear that virtual teams, knitted together by technology rather than sitting together in a room, or a hybrid of virtual and ‘in-person’ working that captures the best of both worlds, are more intelligent options.
The benefits of virtual and hybrid working are not just environmental. Research such as the ‘Embedding new ways of working’ report, funded by the Department for Energy, Business and Industrial Strategy and based on a YouGov poll of more than 1,000 employers conducted in June 2020, revealed that 61 per cent of employers said employees reported an improved work-life balance as a result of home working.
Research shows performance improvements
A 2015 study by Nicholas Bloom and co-authors found that when employees opted in to WFH policies, their productivity increased by 13%. Nine months later, those same workers were given a choice between remaining at home and returning to the office. Those who remained at home saw even further improvements. They became 22% more productive than they had been before the experiment.
The emerging pattern is that staff who choose their work location are shown to be more effective. When virtual working is combined with the correct management, it encourages a focus on delivering outcomes – as opposed to time inside an office.
Sustainability has forced management to evolve and see it as another example of overcoming legacy thinking. Leadership has realised that quality of life improvements will themselves deliver more sustainable ways of working and human resources.
Technology enabling sustainability – the future
Once this legacy thinking has been left behind, there are many ways in which sustainability-based choices can be brought to bear on the operational tools that help a business do what it does.
We have already mentioned initiatives to reduce wastage, move to a paperless office and move towards more efficient distribution and leaner production. Beyond this lies the realm of automation based on accurate tracking of demand that can dynamically alter production planning. It helps the company ensure they are only drawing on the materials, resources and energy needed to serve customers and remain profitable.
It necessitates an alignment of sustainability and waste reduction with what is needed commercially within a business and throughout the supply chain. Hence, the technology platform chosen within a business must be open to partners and suppliers. Creating a sole source of the truth that can be trusted and is accurate underpins the potential for substantial efficiency and sustainability gains.
Once this is in place, the business can explore all angles to find these improvements. It may begin with something as simple as moving beyond production, manufacturing or logistics into departments that – traditionally – are not seen as strong sustainability candidates.
Marketing is a notable example. We have worked with the marketing teams at various clients to identify areas of efficiency. One focused on reducing samples that were usually issued without tracking. Once used, they were thrown away without identifying the business benefit. It was an unnecessary waste that was easily identified and rectified.
Working more sustainably
Another area typically overlooked is the idea of applying sustainability thinking to employees. Fit to work monitoring – be it for a driver, machine operator or manager – aims to move staff into a way of working that is more sustainable. There is a need to be sensitive here. The concept is not meant to encourage surveillance. Instead, it seeks to ensure healthy, optimally functioning employees and continually assess working practices through a sustainable lens.
However, across all these initiatives, one truth that has emerged is that businesses often report the 80/20 rule. In this case, 80% of the sustainability improvements come from localised, intense efforts within approximately 20% of the business.
Making technology sustainable
When deploying sustainability within the technology team, begin with a review of the technologies at use within a company. This should be built around questions of the appropriateness of the technology, how those systems are fit for purpose and, consequently, if they are well-used. There is little point in investing thousands in an innovative technology platform if 90% of it goes unused.
This alignment between need, use, provision and efficiency crystallises around cloud deployment. The business can be assured of continually using (and paying for) only what it needs. The software is continually updated without a substantial investment of time and effort.
Cloud-based services (especially multi-tenant) make more efficient use of data centre resources. There is even the tertiary benefit of a business not needing to source specific skills for deploying the technology.
The MACH architecture (Microservices based, API connected, Cloud delivered, and Headless enabled) offers these benefits at scale. Its integration connects new and legacy systems on a single evolutionary path, guided by sustainability and profitability.
Beyond this, there is a growing need to encourage technology departments to report on their own sustainability in these terms, going beyond the energy use of a laptop or desktop or server estate.
IT also needs to claim its (rightful) reward or recognition for its role in the improvements/changes to operations that improve sustainability, rather than that recognition being awarded elsewhere. If the business is digital, then the sustainable business is using technology to enable it. The two are inextricably interwoven.
Refocusing on better business through a lens of sustainability
Sustainability has forced issues of efficiency to the fore for businesses. There is nothing wrong with that. But, it does suggest that these changes should not be pitched as a sustainability improvement.
They are primarily business done better, and sustainability is almost a secondary benefit. There is even a risk of the tail wagging the dog to reward a business based on sustainability improvements, when they should follow if the organisation becomes more efficient overall, as part of ongoing digital transformation.
BML Digital helps companies deliver complex programmes and transformations quicker, more efficiently and with measurable business beneﬁts.