3 steps for CIOs to build a sustainable business

IT leaders are in a unique position to drive sustainable business practices within the entire organization. Consider these three key practices
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It’s no wonder that sustainability is a priority for boards of directors. Partners, clients, shareholders, and other stakeholders request carbon footprint data from sourcing and investment business sectors – they want to see companies progress in this key area.

It makes good business sense. According to a new study by Genpact, 58% of senior executives who strongly agree that their companies have embedded environmentally sustainable business have better business performance compared to 40% of other respondents.

The board often looks to CIOs to drive these sustainability efforts. CIOs should regard this as an opportunity – to stop reacting to events and instead embrace a proactive plan based on long-term thinking.

From our recent discussions with many CIOs from the F500 organizations we serve, we know that technology leaders believe they can significantly impact sustainability. Nevertheless, most have a long way to go: Less than 10 percent of companies measure their carbon footprint today, and over 30 percent of those get the measurements wrong.

[ Also read 4 reasons IT leaders should champion sustainability. ]

CIOs and technology leaders are in a great position to drive the sustainability agenda for the enterprise. That’s because they have a multidimensional view of the many influences that support an environmental sustainability agenda, from measuring the carbon footprint of the extended enterprise’s technology stack to identifying opportunities to help reduce cost and waste by reducing the number of assets across the organization.

In addition, they understand the importance of change management in developing cross-company sustainability programs. CIOs’ experience addressing the evolution of technology – from mainframe alternatives to cloud-native and mobile-first – gives them the skills to drive large-scale project management across the enterprise.

CIOs' experience addressing the evolution of technology gives them the skills to drive large-scale project management across the enterprise.

And most importantly, CIOs are masters of data, which is the essential resource – data fabrics, data engineering, data analytics, and reporting are the foundation of sustainability initiatives, and indeed all of ESG.

[ Related read 6 ways CIOs can drive change through ESG ]

3 steps to build sustainable business practices on your IT team

The most innovative CIOs are already acting, and the outlines of a new approach are taking shape. The following three steps allow technology leaders in purpose-led companies to build more sustainable business practices.

1. Build an enterprise framework around sustainability

Leading companies have a defined blueprint for target carbon emission reductions, with agreed-upon thresholds at the enterprise level. And they are communicating this goal throughout the enterprise. Both steps are critical in mobilizing change. The CIO’s role in defining the target requires harmonizing multiple initiatives, many originating in highly fragmented and necessarily siloed business areas. The CIO can provide an enterprise-wide view of the initiative, establish a common target, and ensure that sustainability objectives are appropriate for the business and contextualized for the company’s industry.

2. Measure, manage and measure again

Data is key. To establish a baseline, the CIO must measure the impact of the enterprise’s full technology stack, including outside partners and providers. This requires asking for, extracting, and reconciling data across external parties – and remembering to aggregate more than just decarbonization data. Cloud and sourcing choices and the disposition of assets after a cloud migration contribute to the carbon footprint.

The CIO must also guide employees to make good sustainability choices. One example: according to Cisco, there are 27.1 billion devices connected to the internet – that’s more than three devices for every person on the planet. Many enterprise employees carry two mobile phones but don’t need to – existing technology enables them to segment two different environments on one device. Also, organizations with service contacts can reject hardware refreshes from a contract, empowering employees to decide if they need a new device or just a new battery.

3. Combine human and machine intelligence

CIOs leveraging machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) can address old problems in new ways. For example, predictive intelligence can forecast the impact of various choices so that users can be intentional about their decisions.

These new capabilities empower CIOs in other ways as well. Critical data often hides in unstructured documents, flat files, and even manual reports. AI speeds up data ingestion, extraction, and classification. At the same time, it helps change behavior – providing thoughtful and timely nudges, many of which we have perfected with digital commerce. Where machine intelligence is concerned, a human-in-the-loop approach produces the best results.

Adopting these three steps will help CIOs drive their companies’ sustainability agendas, changing the culture of the enterprise, creating stronger loyalty, and attracting purpose-driven talent.

[ Check out essential career advice from 37 award-winning CIOs! Get a variety of insights on leadership, strategy, and career development from IT executives at Mayo Clinic, Dow, Aflac, Liberty Mutual, Nordstrom, and more: Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

Sanjay Srivastava is chief digital strategist at Genpact and chairs the company’s Executive Technology Board – a think tank of F500 CIO, CDO, and CTOs - driving digital transformation at the intersection of cutting-edge technology, data fabrics, operating models, and process design.