5 reasons the CIO can be a corporate sustainability hero

It turns out technology is central to many sustainability success stories. Now, it's up to IT leaders to unleash the potential.

There have been oodles of compelling blogs and essays written about the role of information technology in enabling business innovation. I buy into many of those arguments, but I think we should raise them up to the next level: It's time to really embrace the notion that the CIO's input and guidance is critical for another a fast-emerging priority of corporate America, the sustainability movement.

I got to thinking about this last week during two separate briefings: a set of discussions at an IBM briefing focused on its "smarter computing" activities and an unrelated interview with the chief sustainability officer of Cognizant Technology, who was the IT services firm's CIO until being named to his newly created position.

First off, let me define what I mean by that "sustainability" term, especially for those of you who automatically equate it with random, gratuitous acts of green behavior that have no business in the business world.

I regularly cover corporate and municipal sustainability programs for ZDNet sister site, SmartPlanet. Central to the sustainability strategies of the companies I cover are these themes:

- Efficiency: Sustainability isn't really about cutting energy usage, it is about using less energy to produce your products or services, which (in turn) makes for better operating margins. Ditto when it comes to water consumption. Less is more. It is good for PepsiCo or Coca-Cola or Anheuser-Busch if they can cut the amount of water they use per unit of beverage they produce. That's a bottom-line fact  not a tree-hugger tendency. It just happens to be kind of nice for the planet.

- Staying Power: Even if you are a climate change skeptic, using natural resources like water or fuels more sustainably means they will be around longer. That, in turn, means your company might stay around longer because it has the resources to continue doing business. Making investments in renewable energy technology, for example, is a way for companies like Chevron to hedge their bets, even though we equate them with the fossil fuel past and that revenue clearly drives its existence today.

- Flexibility: This apparently a favorite mantra for Jeanette Horan, the newly anointed vice president and CIO of IBM. Flexibility is about seeing so in tune with your company's business priorities and the realities of technologies -- performance enhancements, security issues and so on -- that you can guide people toward what they are doing without them really realizing it. An example from within IBM's own organization: many of the company's separate business divisions began embracing the same business intelligence tool (Cognos) separately, making for a service, support and data management nightmare. Horan says IBM's IT team moved quickly to create a "single version of the truth" that could be provisioned quickly by the individual divisions according to their own priorities but that is centrally managed. IT reacted quickly to facilitate the change and then got out of the way.

Indeed, if you look at many of the most successful corporate sustainability programs, you will find that technology was central to change. Harvey Koeppel, executive director for the Center for CIO Leadership, a New York-based organization founded to "advance the profession," says the best CIOs are looking beyond the tactical duties of their jobs to "enable new business models and help the CEO use technology as a competitive weapon."

Apparently, CEOs are more likely to think of CIOs as potential change agents than CIOs themselves. But back to the corporate sustainability agenda. There are five really big reasons the CIO can (and should) be central to advancing corporate sustainability cause (or case, if you will) within his or her organization.

#1: IT is the one role within most companies that touches EVERY division.

One of the fastest growing software application categories today is enterprise carbon and energy management. You can think of this sort of like ERP for electricity and greenhouse gas emissions data. I firmly believe that these features will quickly become integrated into the common operational tools use to run companies. That's because what good is this data if it isn't considered in context? The only way to get the complete context, of course, is by exposing that information across the company. That's where the CIO comes in. "IT is the one role in the company where you see everything," Koeppel noted at last week's IBM briefing. Short of payroll, of course, he's got a point.

#2: CIOs are used to working across many different divisions in a "dotted line" role. Mark Greenlaw, the former CIO-turned-sustainability executive for Cognizant, said one big example of this is the insight that the IT team can bring to facilities managers who are trying to cut the electricity associated with lighting, drive smart building technology investments or address data center power management issues. "I don't own the responsibility but we are doing best practices research and otherwise supporting those initiatives," Greenlaw said.

#3: CIOs know how to CYA. What team outside of the legal department has borne the brunt of covering your company's ass when it comes to privacy mandates, corporate disclosure rules and other compliance measures? Yep, it's the IT team. Right now, many companies report their progress toward certain environmental, diversity and social goals voluntarily, but it is easy to foresee a day when that might become mandatory. There is no way that businesses can get around that challenge without using technology to collection and report that data -- on a much more real-time basis. In white paper that Cognizant wrote about corporate sustainability, "Beyond Green: The Triple Play of Sustainability," Greenlaw argues: "With a post-recession business world increasingly influenced by the four forces of the Future of Work -- globalization, virtualization, cloud computing and millennial-influenced workforce and marketplace -- pressure is mounting for companies to be transparent and open to scrutiny about how they do business and maintain profitability." Greenlaw believes sustainability reporting will be a short-term differentiator.

Here's a video accompanying the white paper I've mentioned:

#4: CIOs have been programmed to think sustainably. Greenlaw said he has called upon his knowledge of how to pitch large capital projects, a skill he exercised often as CIO, as a means of investigating the technology investments that Cognizant might make to operate more sustainably. Those investments run the gamut from alternative energy technologies such as wind generation to the business value of long-term service agreements to the appropriate lighting retrofit approach. Regardless, the CIO knows how to apply the proper lens for rating these investments: how quickly can the business see its return?

#5: Increasingly, the lines between business technology and information technology are blurring. There probably is no bigger potential example of the convergence of purpose-built business technologies and what we have been trained to think of as IT than building management systems. Although building management systems aren't under the direct control of IT, there are myriad ways information technology can help optimize their performance—and more are emerging every day. Sensor technologies that capture information about temperature, lighting levels, electricity, fuel consumption and so on are relatively useless in the absence of analytics technology to help figure out what it going on. Who will build the integration bridge between these two worlds? The CIO.

In his white paper on sustainability, Greenlaw writes: "In the end, sustainability represents a significant opportunity for the CIO. Particularly in organizations where a program has yet to begin, CIOs should consider stepping up and offering to take on this role until the time the company has sustainability embedded in all of its core business processes and no longer needs to be flagged as a separate initiative."

Simply put, the CIO is uniquely equipped with the superpowers to become a corporate sustainability hero. But only if he or she takes the initiative to unleash the potential within their own organization.

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