We are undergoing a revolution in thinking that has been brought about by commercial organisations increasingly waking up to their responsibilities and obligations to contribute to preventing irreversible climate change.
For many years, the topic of green IT has bubbled under the surface, and whilst a few organisations have taken it very seriously, a lot have taken an approach that might be likened to the minimum they believe is acceptable to their customers. This is starting to change though, as organisations are now clambering to have more concrete commitments to be net zero or fully sustainable by a set date.
Whilst more progressive organisations are targeting a date that will seriously challenge them, like 2030, others are still happy to continue to make it tomorrow’s problem and target dates as far out as 2050. More enlightened organisations are already also demanding a set date for net zero throughout their supply chain and this, combined with both consumer and investor pressure, is likely to make far out dates start to move in.
Planning through life
Having a sustainability target needs to pervade throughout organisations and one of the disciplines that needs to look at it most carefully is that of IT strategy and planning. As well as all the other factors that contribute to high quality technology enabled solutions, the sustainability of the service will increasingly become a prime factor for all of us to consider both in the status-quo and through transformation.
The first problem facing technology planners is that we are often asked to plan for the establishment of new capabilities fulfilled by technology, but we are not asked to plan the ongoing sustainability of that capability throughout its life. At best, planning is typically limited to the period associated with the return on investment (RoI).
Once technology planning has taken place, there is often a further challenge, where the cohesive end-to-end solution architecture is often a point-in-time creation, rather than a living architecture that evolves in order to meet the ever-changing needs through the life of the capability.
Organising for sustainability
Whilst the planning challenges can be relatively easily rectified from a procedural perspective, it can be much more complex for us to realise sustainable change in the way some organisations are designed.
Solution and project-centric approaches to change are likely to always struggle with long-term sustainability needs, because any significant changes to manage ongoing sustainability requires project money.
One of the most successful alternative approaches that does work has emerged over the last few years, which is to have a capability and product-centric approach, where we have durable product teams that are responsible for the planning, change, operation and ongoing sustainability of the capabilities and products we are responsible for.
Even when organisations introduce methodologies that enable planning through life, there is often a huge residual area of the IT estate that was neither planned nor operated in this way. This can be a difficult challenge to rectify and can often become a type of environmental debt that has to be thought of in a similar guise as technical debt. This is likely to become more important in the future.
The cost of sustainability
Another challenge is that financial planning often doesn’t encapsulate the costs associated with a sustainable solution. At a crude level, this could be the costs we associate with making a solution perpetually net zero; at a more sophisticated level, it could also be how we minimise the use of resources in all dimensions.
The challenge today, is that a lot of the financial models utilised do not include a cost for non-sustainability – again at a crude level, this is the cost of offsetting to net zero. As organisations work out what they need to do to realise a net zero or sustainability promise, there is a real opportunity for us to factor in the environmental costs (that are increasingly measurable and becoming standardised).
This has the opportunity to drive quite different strategic decision making and both ends of the spectrum – for instance the sunk environmental costs of the creation of IT equipment and the ongoing environmental costs of running highly inefficient technologies.
New strength to planning themes
Automation and hyperautomation in particular are very hot topics in IT today and are often part of a transformation agenda. These are potentially underpinned by strong environmental benefits too.
The more sophisticated the automation is, generally the more efficient it will be on the use of resources. That means the sticking-plaster approaches drive much less environmental benefit than the simplification of processes and complete removal of unnecessary processes.
Full automation wins over the use of a human in the middle, because it almost always uses less resources overall.
If high levels of automation are combined with approaches to minimise the use of technology resources, then we potentially have a very strong environmental benefit case.
Consolidation and simplification
Any medium-to-large organisation will have duplication of one kind or another. This is often lived with, because the cost of consolidating and deduplicating is perceived to be high. If we factor the benefits related to lower use of resources and more sustainability, it can potentially add to the importance of this planning theme.
Similarly but more subtly, simplification is a topic that also drives the reduction in use of resources. At the core, almost all medium-sized organisations have processes that are more complicated than they need, because they have grown organically into what they have become and only partially planned. This means that if we use simplification as a theme, it can also drive a lot of environmental benefit.
What’s important is understanding the areas in which an organisation truly differentiates around and recognising this is likely a very small kernel (say, 10-15% of their processes); everything else should be made to be as simple as possible whilst enabling these capabilities when we look through the environmental lens.
The drag on realising this is the economic cost of driving a strong simplification agenda – and often unpopularity – when, in fact, adding environmental factors to the mix can help our case to become more compelling.
The efficiency of technology has reduced as the cost of computation and storage has reduced and performance has increased. In the IT industry, Moore’s Law has meant that improvements in computational performance have been such that the need for efficiency has been a secondary concern except for low-latency use-cases. IT efficiency may become an important topic because the efficiency of a system has a significant bearing on the use of resources and therefore any efficiency improvement will also use less resources.
IT efficiency is much broader than the efficiency of computation; the efficiency of software development and associated lifecycles is also an important topic. The advent of low-code / no-code becoming mainstream has driven the efficiency of software development from one side, and developer tools (such as intelligent suggestions and AI-driven auto-completion technologies) from the other, more traditional side, meaning everyone can be more efficient.
Technology sourcing and procurement could be set to become much more complex over the next few years. One of the key reasons is that if an organisation’s environmental credentials are worth anything, we must measure them across the whole supplier ecosystem. That means the credentials of all significant third parties and third party services and in turn their third parties (often referred to as fourth parties).
Putting some of the environmental burden on our suppliers is seen wrongly or rightly as a good way of helping organisations realise their environmental goals. That means that sustainability and the minimisation of use of resources is set to be a hot topic for software and services organisations who provide the technology ecosystem.
How real is this?
As you will have observed, there is a lot of potential opportunity around better IT planning to make a real difference towards the sustainability of an organisation. The limiting factors are old ways of thinking, which we as IT professionals need to positively challenge.
These are significant organisational changes and honestly speaking, only the most enlightened organisations – and those who have the most to lose – are fully working through the real implications of what they need to do to be genuinely sustainable, and delivering an environmental goal rather than just greenwashing their marketing.