6 ways to build a green IT culture

CIOs and IT leaders who want to implement sustainability programs can't ignore the human element. Learn strategies to build a culture of green IT.

The human factor is what makes an IT strategy succeed -- or fail. And that's especially true when it comes to sustainable IT.

As more CIOs focus on sustainability, they can't forget people. Specifically, creating a culture of green IT is critical to larger sustainability success. That requires appealing to the right stakeholders and proceeding with empathic change management.

Green IT dreams vs. realities

Becoming green doesn't just happen. Like any important initiative, a successful sustainability initiative requires prioritization and support from people and there's work to do on that front.

Only 34% of companies include sustainable IT as part of their board-level agenda, according to "Sustainable IT: Why It's Time for a Green Revolution for Your Organization's IT," a 2021 report released by research and advisory firm Capgemini. Thirty-nine percent have a governance body charged with overseeing sustainable IT, but only half of this latter group count CIOs as members.

Supporting a green IT culture seems lacking, as well.

Only 31% of organizations offer incentives to employees who are more sustainable in their IT usage, even though incentives are critical, according to the Sustainable IT report.

"[Incentives] can change employee behavior and create the right culture, ensuring IT is used in a way that aligns with the organization's wider sustainability goals," according to the same report.

These may be frustrating numbers for sustainability-minded IT leaders, but here are six steps CIOs can take to help instill a green IT culture.

1. Market widely, but know key stakeholders

Sustainability is a team sport, which means CIOs need to appeal to the whole organization to support green initiatives. Still, a sustainability team should include the right people and make clear which parties have the deciding votes.

Jason Jay headshotJason Jay

Succeeding in creating a sustainable culture throughout an organization -- including in IT -- requires a top-down/bottom-up approach, said Jason Jay, director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass. All employees, no matter their rank, can identify areas in which the company may improve its sustainability posture.

The IT department can take steps such as creating a process to optimize laptops for longer lifecycles and determining ways in which the company can be more efficient in its cloud and data center usage, Jay said. At the leadership level, executives should be examining big-picture material issues, such as energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and e-waste.

"[Then] let's have a systematic program around [those for] measuring our baseline, setting some goals and targets, and making some capital available for projects that can move us from the current state to the goal state," Jay illustrated.

While a culture of sustainability is critical to success, it's important to involve important stakeholders so that the company doesn't inadvertently ignore major sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Enthusiasm for sustainability may prompt people to rally around visible issues at the expense of critical sustainability issues because the latter are not as visible, Jay said. For example, people might expend a lot of time and effort abolishing coffee pods from the break room since it's a highly visible issue, but not realize the server room down the hall has a major carbon footprint because that negative environmental impact is less visible and a limited number of employees enter this space. The individual in charge of the server room may offer perspective that could contribute to decreasing the carbon footprint in a much more meaningful way.

"It's possible to engage every single person in thinking about the environmental performance of the company, and that is useful because then you're getting a lot more eyes on the problem," Jay said. "But there's this funny thing where yes, you want to engage everybody, but you sometimes get distracted by trivialities as a result of that."

2. Develop a network of champions

Creating a green IT culture means having people focused on responsible tech use across the organization.

Matt Buchner headshotMatt Buchner

To succeed, IT leaders should develop a network of sustainability champions throughout the organization, said Matt Buchner, senior director of cloud architecture at NTT Data Services, an IT services firm headquartered in Plano, Texas. Champions could be members of the company's IT Center of Excellence, if the company has one, and, of course, the chief sustainability officer.

"[Build] a small group that works on raising awareness, does training and workshops, [and] talks about success stories," Buchner said. "You may even invite some outside speakers in to motivate the employees."

3. Make sustainability core to decision-making

Sustainability initiatives are changing every part of the enterprise, including IT, and that includes decision-making.

William Sisson headshotWilliam Sisson

Traditionally, cost has driven enterprise decision-making, said William Sisson, executive director of the North American chapter of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a global nonprofit organization headquartered in Geneva. Today, leaders and stakeholders throughout the organization must also embed sustainability into the decision-making process.

"When I choose a supplier, yes, the supplier has to meet my cost profile, but it also needs to meet my carbon profile, my nature profile and my social profile," Sisson said. "And that information flow is going to have to be measured, disclosed and brought through the value chain so these decisions can be informed."

For most organizations, gathering this information is a major challenge.

To tackle that challenge, procurement professionals and their suppliers must collaborate in radically new ways, Sisson said.

"This notion of radical collaboration with my supply chain is going to be very important in the CIO community [for them] to put the right systems in place," he said.

4. Take concrete action

Building a culture of green IT requires leaders to identify areas within the organization that could use improvements, such as the non-production cloud environment where engineers develop and test products.

[Build] a small group that works on raising awareness, does training and workshops, [and] talks about success stories.
Matt BuchnerSenior director of cloud architecture, NTT Data Services

"Most organizations I work with run their non-production environment 24/7," Buchner said. "That's a lot of servers -- sometimes even more than the production environment itself."

There is no need to run a non-production environment on a nonstop basis, because generally activity occurs during work hours only, he said. Although it requires effort, it pays to optimize this energy use.

"You could reduce your energy consumption quite a lot," Buchner said.

5. Sell sustainability's innovation potential

One of the challenges that IT leaders face when advocating for sustainability is resistance to change.

People often think they'll need to make difficult trade-offs as a result of sustainable IT initiatives, Jay said. The following are just a few of those anticipated losses:

  • less access to high-performing technology;
  • restrictions on how people execute compute-heavy projects that require substantial server power; and
  • lower productivity because access to high-performing tech is limited.

Creating a successful sustainability initiative requires IT leaders to use all the soft skills they have at their disposal.

IT leaders need to acknowledge concerns, and to frame the sustainability journey as an opportunity to innovate, Jay said. When these trade-offs do present themselves, it's the chance to get creative about how to work around them.

"You have to say, 'that trade-off is in a two-dimensional space,'" he said. "What we're trying to do is actually break that trade-off and come up with [solutions] that are going to be more profitable, more effective, and reduce our environmental footprint at the same time."

6. Demonstrate accountability

Leaders who want to succeed at sustainability need to be accountable for their actions.

Linking sustainability to executive compensation is part of that, Sisson said.

"We're increasingly seeing that in what I would call the characteristics of strong, fully integrated, green companies," he said.

By putting their money where their mouth is, leaders can show their commitment to advancing their organization's sustainability efforts.

"If I'm a true, aligned executive in a company, I'm going to demonstrate how important [sustainability] is to me by allowing my compensation to be tied to how well I'm performing in this space," he said. "This walk-the-talk element is going to be key for the rest of the organization to buy into the change the leadership is trying to drive."

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