Will corporate sustainability save IT from itself?

There are new faces at the IT table, and one of them is sustainability

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SF Bay, Marin headlands

Last week, flying out of SFO northward over the verdant hills of Marin, rising above the tankers anchored off Richmond swinging with the tide and the long plumes from the Sacramento River’s inflow to the bay like ribbons unfurling in the water, I reflected on a visit that touched five Silicon Valley sustainability stakeholders in two days. Enroute to my adopted home of Seattle, I am struck with the commonality of these sessions and an early release of Uptime Institute’s 2016 Industry Survey results. (Disclosure: I work for Uptime Institute and oversee the content group there.)

There are new faces at the IT table. And one of them is sustainability. Two years ago, a place at the table for sustainability would have been provocative, and perhaps evoked derision. In 2015, less than a tenth of enterprise IT stakeholders had confidence in corporate sustainability to affect IT efficiency and costs. One short year later, 2016 is a vastly different matter and the data suggests that the time of corporate sustainability in IT is here now: 70% of enterprise IT organizations actively participate in corporate sustainability efforts. The influence of an outside party breaks down the ‘thwart by silo’ effect that has been the cause of so much well meaning, and often fruitless, energies to reshape IT.

The industry is overly fixated on emulating the Silicon Valley-associated hyper scale providers. Their range of challenges, and complexion of solutions, is a function of their scale and thus not applicable to a vast majority of enterprises. How do I make my data center look like a Web giant’s data center is a grand waste of thought energy for the typical enterprise. Nevertheless, in this instance, there is something to be gleaned from the front-runners in Silicon Valley.

IT is fixated with uninterruptible availability, speed of data center deployment, and efficacy of software rollout. They are not always tasked, or rewarded, with oversight of resource consumption. Anything that could even hint at slowing down the pace of IT is set aside. This has created a group for which efficient IT is ‘out of character’ to coin a phrase from one of the sustainability executives I met with today.

This disconnect between the IT group drivers and efficient IT imperative is best evidenced by the chronic issue of comatose servers. (Type ‘Server Roundup’ into your preferred search engine to marvel at the scale of the problem.) How it could come to pass that millions of dollars in expense cost was wasted year over year over year for neglected IT equipment? The answer is that, despite more sophisticated monitoring tools, no one is looking nor told to.

Almost half of enterprise IT have no scheduled server auditing because they do not believe that the bosses care. And the bosses think that their team is too busy for culling.* It’s the perfect storm of inaction and perpetuated waste. And ‘out of character’ is by far from an indictment of very hard working (and often chronically taxed) IT experts. To accept responsibility for resource consumption would be ‘out of character’ with the longstanding management guidance of availability at all costs.

But will the perceived threat actually be a welcomed threat? And will corporate sustainability drive needed changes that were previously felt to be out of scope or beyond bandwidth?

One corporate sustainability program manager from a major software organization relayed a telling shift of her attention from factories to data center and IT. This transition, about two years ago, was driven by the transition of her company’s software delivered from a cloud-based-delivery model. This obsoleted the need for consumers to drive to the store and buy a cardboard box of CD-ROMs. Durable goods were no longer being manufactured and IT became the epicenter of production. And thus inherited corporate sustainability’s attention.  

This individual still has a legacy reporting to the products group, but I believe this will change and needs to change. For organizations for whom IT is significant, or paramount, in their CAPEX spend, then corporate sustainability should be nested within the IT and data center team. If this is not possible, then very closely aligned with a functional reporting to IT despite actual reporting elsewhere. The hyper scale providers have innovated reporting relationships in this regard as they have responded to the fact that their largest kW consumption, carbon emitted, and expense is embedded in data centers. Other reporting variants become problematic. For example, a reporting relationship up through marketing tends to dilute the potential impact and corporate sustainability credibility, as it could been misconstrued as greenwashing rather than practicable and significant improvements.

Everything is not rosy among the 70% of IT who participate in corporate sustainability. The majority focus on metrics with the least impact to the cost and carbon picture, but we will put off that topic for a future post. Albeit, the time is now for a well-placed and empowered corporate sustainability seat at the IT table to address holistically the resource consumption challenge there. The connections that corporate sustainability has with strategic and corporate-wide initiatives can overwhelm the intransigence that comes with the silos of IT, Real Estate, Facilities, Property, Network, Finance, etc. This new seat can provide the top cover and motivation to look at procurement, deployment, and asset management with renewed and tightened focus.

And, it bears repeating in this forum and elsewhere . . .whether it’s your boss wondering which 50% of his IT spend is wasted. . . an NGO calling you out. . . shareholders to placate. . . a plaque missing from your foyer. . . or a sustainability report to be augmented. . . everyone needs a good story to tell.

 * Uptime Institute Industry Survey 2015

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