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Beyond ‘blah, blah, blah’ – the five actionable pillars of sustainable digital transformation

cloud digital transformation
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Ekaphone maneechot)

Digital transformation and sustainability initiatives are too often viewed by organizations as separate agenda items. Instead, both should be integrated to create a bigger impact on profit, people and the planet.

Companies that continue to treat two of the most pressing issues facing businesses today in isolation will fail to survive – the situation really is that urgent. Fortunately, unlike the global politicians whose recent extended talks at the Cop26 climate summit were dismissed by Greta Thunberg as more “blah, blah, blah”, most business leaders have the autonomy to take decisive action now. 

Survival strategy for our planet, people and businesses

Covid-19 has acted as a catalyst for the already rapidly accelerating digital transformation of business. 

According to Forbes, “The pandemic has fast-tracked digital transformation for global companies by an average of six years.” And few believe that there will be a ‘return to normal’. Coronavirus is permanently reshaping the way we live and work, and wide-scale digital adoption will outlast Covid.

These realizations have reinforced the positioning of digital transformation as a top priority for business. But alongside it, the existential threat our planet faces is a shared responsibility which is integral to our survival and cannot be ignored.

Fortunately however, there’s no downside to merging the agendas of digital transformation and sustainability. In fact, it’s a win-win. By pledging to reduce waste in all its forms (energy, processing, by-products etc) and increasing energy efficiency across all digital operations, organizations are doing the right thing by the planet and potentially improving the bottom line. 

It also allows companies to attract new and retain existing customers and employees – working for organizations with purpose is increasingly a motivator for younger talent in particular, whilst consumers are more mindful of choosing sustainable brands than ever.

Getting started with sustainable digital transformation

So how can businesses undertake the potentially daunting task of implementing sustainable digital transformation? The most important step is to take action – the time for discussion is over. Be sure to involve people at all levels of the organization, as the success or failure of this initiative directly affects everyone. Alongside this, ensure there is buy-in across all executive functions and alignment at board level. Securing support at executive level might rely on the delivery of particular competitive advantages (e.g better customer and talent retention, more new business) that will be the result of this shift in mindset, so you should clearly establish what these will be and how they will manifest themselves at the outset. 

Next, establish a baseline. Measure current efforts and position in terms of digital and sustainability performance. Then decide on the most desirable goals and impacts for your project. A tip for setting these targets: prioritize the initiatives that sit in the quadrant of most impact and quickest to deliver. That way you have impact but also gain momentum, trust and credibility that will enable you to go after the bigger impact initiatives that will be harder to implement. Taking smaller steps that result in positive changes is more effective than grandiose aims that are not realized. By promoting and prioritizing initiatives that are already aligned with the core business strategy you are more likely to garner support than resistance.

Once these fundamentals are in place, your strategy should be shaped by the five pillars of digital sustainability below.

Prioritize measurement

Data is the backbone of everything – you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So establishing and preserving data integrity is essential: 77 percent of IT decision-makers don’t completely trust the data in their organization for timely and accurate decision-making. Accurate, accessible data allows companies to construct, articulate, and visualize what good looks like.

Look at how you measure your impact and democratize data across the organization. This will empower employees to make decisions that have a positive impact. Examine the initiatives already running in the business today and see if you can insert or adjust a data model that enables a better view of the consequences of your business activities. Take your website for example – you will know how many clicks and impressions you’re getting; but do you know the carbon footprint of your website, or how many people are excluded from content because it's not accessible?

Build infrastructure

Fragmentation is one of the biggest challenges facing businesses today in terms of the inefficiencies it causes at both an organizational and environmental level. Companies that have accumulated a technology stack over the course of their existence often end up with a complex mixture of systems that is inefficient in terms of energy usage and operational output. 

It is therefore essential not to make the same mistakes in the digital world that humans often have in the physical world. The best approach is a responsible modernization of your technology foundations. Whilst making changes might represent a significant initial cost for more established companies at the outset, they will also see corresponding benefits – the ability to continue to attract investors, compete with new challengers and maintain positive brand perceptions for example.

Taking demonstrable steps towards modernizing your organization and becoming more sustainable will also have a positive impact on your employer brand. By having clearly visible sustainability and responsibility values that are integrated into every facet of the organization, including digital and IT, you are better placed to influence the attraction, engagement and retention of aligned employees. A key priority for Gen Z and Millennials is knowing they’re working towards a purpose that goes beyond just the pursuit of profit, and taking steps to become greener is concrete evidence of an organization doing just that.

Reduce impact

Organizations must put circularity at the heart of system design – and not just for IT. Circularity needs to be built into every design discipline, from office design, physical products and packaging, to digital products and services, physical and digital marketing, supply chain and beyond.  

A linear approach where legacy systems are rendered obsolete hasn’t worked. They inevitably turn into e-waste, which amounted to approximately 54 million metric tons worldwide in 2019. And e-waste isn’t just generated through hardware – the energy used to backup data comes with its own environmental footprint. This is only snowballing as cloud storage (opens in new tab) surges in popularity.

Organizations should transition to regenerative thinking, where circular flows and continuous production loops can mitigate hardware and software obsolescence. Doing so does not represent a compromise – by applying circular principles across the EU economy, there’s potential to increase the bloc’s GDP by 0.5 percent by 2030.

Democratize responsibility

Businesses must equip employees and suppliers with the insights and tools to make sustainable decisions. Without employee accountability and buy-in along the supply chain, sustainable transformation results will be limited. By empowering employees and motivating suppliers to take responsibility for their output, businesses can democratize sustainability targets. Ensuring teams have accessible tools at their fingertips allows them to make data-driven, evidence-based decisions. They can model the impact of their actions, not only in terms of profit but also people and planet. 

Mindful use

Alongside increased access to data and technology, there’s a need to be mindful of how and when it’s deployed. When designing new systems and interfaces, empathy for employees and customers will be key to getting buy-in. Prevention and treatment solutions should form the core of employee resilience and mental health programs, potentially coupled with wearables and digital biomarker apps. With user consent, these tools can be used to collect physiological data which, coupled with analytics software, can alert individuals to potential issues, helping them stay healthy.

By taking an interconnected approach to digital transformation and sustainability, businesses can reap the dual benefits of improving business performance, whilst protecting the environment in which their organization exists. Without either, survival will be unlikely.

Lindsay Ratcliffe, Chief Product Officer, Kin + Carta Europe (opens in new tab)

Lindsay Ratcliffe

Lindsay Ratcliffe is Chief Product Officer at Kin + Carta Europe and co-authored Agile Experience Design, widely acknowledged as a must-read for designers, product managers and developers.