Why managers should insist on sustainable change

22 May 2008

Today, most businesses take the balanced stance of caring for the environment and behaving responsibly in their relationships with others, while seeking to make good returns for their shareholders. It makes sound economic sense to do so. Saving energy saves money; and any hint of people or planet mistreatment - either directly or indirectly - can inflict huge damage on a company's reputation and brand.

But are businesses successfully translating their sustainability programmes into enhanced profitability‾ In other words, are they making a virtue out of a necessity‾ According to a major international study carried out by BT and the Economist Intelligence Unit [Action or Aspiration‾ Sustainability in the Workplace ] the answer to the question is a resounding no.

The study showed that while almost half of the companies surveyed said that sustainability programmes helped improve brand values, less than one in five felt that they improved profitability. It seems that, while sustainability may be firmly on the agenda - as corporations seek to establish their ethical trading credentials - executives have yet to find a way to harness it as a commercial force.

Leadership is key

Perhaps one reason for this is lack of direction from the top. The BT Economist survey revealed that many corporate sustainability programmes do not benefit from board level leadership. In two out of five of the organisations surveyed the person responsible for sustainability issues did not report directly to the board. In fact, one in five of those organisations had no person responsible for such matters at all.

But it doesn't have to be that way. The report's findings suggest a successful sustainability programme relies on leadership and that all organisations, BT included, are to succeed on their journey. The point is that the whole experience can be a win-win for all concerned - communities, emerging economies, the environment, and the bottom line.

The fact is that managers have no shortage of opportunities to lead the sustainable agenda. They should be looking at sustainability as they lead the business through strategic change programmes.

Why business change is a sustainable opportunity

A recent BT White Paper [Planning For A Sustainable Future: Helping Organisations Reduce Their Carbon Footprints ]contends that appropriate ICT use and management not only reduces the carbon footprint of the ICT estate itself, but also can drive carbon reduction in other areas of the business. The paper further suggests that using ICT to help the organisation to cut emissions will not only drive business growth but also enhance the company's reputation for environmental responsibility.

In fact, there is a remarkable (if largely unacknowledged) co-relation between the ICT initiatives - collaboration, virtualisation, standardisation, shared services, outsourcing, and flexible working amongst them - that are driving strategic change and transformation and the steps that companies need to take to improve their sustainability ratings.

After all, while collaborative technologies help people to co-operate across barriers of time and geography, they also obviate the need for travel. Similarly, virtualisation helps do more with less by using the network platform to interconnect people and resources, rather than creating physical entities. Standardisation enables the elimination of silo-based legacy systems (and is a pre-requisite for successful shared services).

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