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Business sustainability projects require savvy data analysis

In this Q&A, Stephen Keys of IFS discusses why sustainability projects for organizations are complex undertakings, but the data needed to drive projects already exists.

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important for businesses, but wanting to do the responsible thing and actually implementing effective sustainability initiatives are different matters.

However, successful sustainability efforts might hinge on data that's already hidden within organizations.

The conversations around sustainability in business have moved beyond questions about why it's important to how to start those programs, according to Stephen Keys, chief talent and sustainability officer for ERP vendor IFS.

Sustainability requires organizations to discover and analyze data in new ways that indicate very clearly where sustainability efforts affect business. However, organizations need to identify, gather and analyze the right data, which in many cases already exists within or is being generated by the organization, Keys said.

In this Q&A, Keys discusses how businesses can more effectively incorporate sustainability by thinking about data in new ways.

Why is it hard for organizations to get going on sustainability initiatives?

Stephen Keys: Some organizations suffer from a lack of access to the right data, particularly about internalizing external costs. If you think about groundwater consumption for the traditional make-take-waste model, if the organization doesn't have visibility into the real cost about the resources being consumed, it's hard to make better and more informed decisions. So, [it's about] getting people visibility into the information they need to have a complete view.

How can organizations start to use this data?

You need to think a little bit bigger-picture around whether the materials have value to someone else and how you can capture that and maybe build a business model around it.
Stephen KeysChief talent and sustainability officer, IFS

Keys: You can ratchet them up to be a part of much bigger decision-making processes, like where you might site a new factory. For example, if one organization produces a wafer that's a common raw material for another organization's manufacturing process, why wouldn't they think about colocating that [manufacturing operation]? This requires mature thinking, but it also requires access to the data and a view of the data beyond your organizational boundaries. You need to think a little bit bigger-picture around whether the materials have value to someone else and how you can capture that and maybe build a business model around it.

Where does the data come from and how is it collected?

Keys: A lot of that data is already sitting in organizations; it's just about knowing where to find it and making sure you have the right 'listening stations' to capture that information. For example, a construction company in the U.K. started to put sensors in their construction equipment on site, originally from a predictive maintenance perspective so they could analyze it and stay ahead of the game by bringing a truck in before it fails. Then they started looking at the data a little bit differently and started to work out what machines were actually being used on site or not, because a lot of times the machine was just running on idle. Just the act of figuring that out and instructing the driver to switch that engine off during the time the machine was not being actively used saved an incredible amount of [cost and carbon].

It's often about taking the data that's already available and getting it into the hands of someone who can view the data differently, like viewing business strategy or business operations through the lens of sustainability. The data is there -- it's having access to the data that's important.

The three pillars of sustainability are environmental (planet), social (people) and economic (profit).
Sustainability requires businesses to focus on three main pillars: the planet, people and ways to profit from sustainability efforts.

Who should be responsible for sustainability initiatives in an organization?

Keys: Successful organizations have sustainability embedded throughout the organization. You don't just have a sustainability team reporting up to the board as a separate function, but you might have an operations or line manager apply sustainability as a part of their decision-making process. When sustainability is embedded within an organization, you start to get those different decisions being made. You're looking at that data and no longer thinking just about predictive maintenance -- you're also thinking, what if we could have significant cost savings from less fuel consumption and get a better outcome on carbon reduction goals?

Does overall direction for sustainability efforts need to be driven from higher levels of the organization?

Stephen Keys, chief talent and sustainability officer, IFSStephen Keys

Keys: Yes, and you're definitely seeing the more advanced organizations embedding sustainability throughout different executive roles -- such as the head of facilities or internal IT -- and having representation on the board. For example, IFS has an ESG [environmental, social and governance] board member, which keeps it current and front of mind so that the board stays informed on the regulatory environment, the risks associated with sustainability -- such as rising energy prices and reputational hits -- and keeping a simple scorecard for things like diversity and inclusion scores and carbon emissions outputs.

We find it helpful as an organization to keep the conversation current, because it's easy to get started when everyone's enthusiastic, but then it starts to die a bit after six months. Having it at a board level keeps the conversation current and ongoing.

Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Jim O'Donnell is a TechTarget senior news writer who covers ERP and other enterprise applications for TechTarget Editorial.

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