Going green: A guide for CIOs

How to bring environmentally sustainable computing to your business

How to bring environmentally sustainable computing to your business

In good times and bad, green IT deserves a spot on the CIO agenda. Stuart Roberts explains how to get it right.

Before the downturn, green IT - or environmentally sustainable computing - was one of the common threads on CIO agendas. It was popular for a variety of reasons: fluctuating energy costs, legislative mandate and social responsibility, to name a few.

In fact, a recent green IT survey, conducted by the CIO Executive Board - a programme of the Corporate Executive Board - revealed that 78 per cent of organisations already have a formal green IT programme in place.

According to the research, most green IT efforts are sporadic, short term initiatives and lack a formal structure. Needless to say, they are among the first to be put on the back burner as the recession shifted executive attention to more fiscal priorities.

However, as we prepare for economic recovery, this topic is worth revisiting as it will most definitely crop up again on CIO agendas. So let's get ahead of the game, and get a grip on green. Only this time, let's get it right.

Getting green right
Typically, when CIOs are asked to go green, most are left to their own devices. And most focus on energy efficiency.

In this space, the IT department can do two things.

First, it can focus on helping business partners become greener - for example, by bringing in collaboration tools to replace staff travel. However, the IT department then runs the risk of increasing its own energy consumption levels by increasing power needed to run the systems which provide those collaboration tools.

Second, IT can make internal changes that cut its energy consumption levels alone by outsourcing datacentres or powering down all printers and PCs every evening.

The answer to getting green right is no different from any other investment - clarify business objectives first. CIOs must set clear objectives on issues such as whether to focus on green within the IT department, the business, or both, and then make sure that IT and business partners understand the trade-offs.

IT leaders must also ensure consensus on whether green initiatives must deliver cost savings (this is usually the case) or whether the organisation is willing to incur additional expense in return for less tangible green benefits such as improved reputation.

Having done all this, CIOs can focus on execution.

Best practices
Research from the CIO Executive Board shows that the theme of treating green IT projects no differently from other business initiatives continues in execution. Faced with the immaturity of strategic thinking about green IT, leading CIOs have identified two critical activities to successfully sustain green IT projects:

  1. Select performance-focused, initiative-related success measures. As with any IT-related investment, CIOs must measure and compare the benefits of individual green initiatives. Most organisations report only high-level green metrics, such as overall or function-wide energy consumption. To sustain focus and support for a green IT strategy, CIOs must select granular performance metrics that enable comparison and prioritisation, such as percentage of equipment entered into recycling programs and power usage efficiency (PUE) or KW/CPU hours delivered.
  2. Embed accountability for green into individual roles. To ensure green becomes part of day-to-day thinking in IT, and to secure business support, CIOs must assign accountability to roles across the IT organisation. Most critical are roles connected to implementation, planning and communication. For example, someone could be assigned to checking new projects comply with green standards and ensure green IT is embedded in all existing projects. Or the IT procurement team could include green criteria when selecting external partners.

By pursuing a sustained, economically focused green IT strategy - that is, putting in place metrics and embedding accountability in individual roles - IT organisations can achieve two goals. They can save money within IT, through energy efficiencies at the datacentre or on the desktop. And they can help the business leverage IT and become greener through process efficiencies.

These efficiencies, in turn, will protect the business from unexpected spikes in energy and raw material prices, help align it with legislative mandates and tick several boxes in corporate social responsibility. In some cases, it may even help execs sleep with a clearer conscience, as we finally mean what we say about going green.

A comprehensive framework for planning and implementing green IT initiatives is available at the Corporate Executive Board website.

Stuart Roberts is managing director of the IT practice at the Corporate Executive Board.

The Corporate Executive Board offers research and insights along with an integrated suite of members-only tools and resources that enable the world's most successful organisations to deliver superior business outcomes.

The CIO Executive Board, part of the Corporate Executive Board, provides research, tools and resources to help executives and their teams solve complex organisational, process, and management issues that commonly derail IT organisations.