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Sustainable IT Can Improve Profits and Planet

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Using sustainable approaches in information technologies, especially with business intelligence and analytics initiatives, can help organizations improve the planet and their profits

Sustainability is a general term, usually associated with “green” initiatives that address governance of our planet.  It includes lowering emissions, reducing dependence on fossil fuel, providing stewardship of our forests and water supplies, minimizing waste, and improving the health of the global population.  Wikipedia defines sustainability as “…an attempt to provide the best outcomes for the human and natural environments both now and into the indefinite future.  It relates to the continuity of economic, social, institutional, and environmental aspects of human society, as well as the non-human environment.”  Sustainability affects every level of organization, from the local neighborhood to the entire planet, and this effort includes the management and use of data.

There is a sea change in progress within the business community as corporations come around to the understanding that going green does not mean giving up profits and that going green can significantly improve profits.  A Business Week article was entitled “Beyond the Green Corporation” which pointed out the profit motive behind a number of corporate initiatives that coincidentally help the planet.

As organizations look at their emissions, waste, safety, use of resources and other factors related to sustainability, they will want to monitor trends and see how the current period compares to previous periods.  The data warehouse lends itself very well to trend analysis.  On a basic level, business intelligence (BI) could (but does not necessarily) provide an organization with the ability to minimize creating voluminous hard copy reports.  Many organizations have drastically reduced hard copy reporting by providing the same and even better information electronically with BI.

Data warehousing, BI, and analytics provide meaningful, clean, and understood data and metadata that can be analyzed for a number of applications that would support sustainability and will make a contribution to a company’s bottom line.

  • Employee commute – By analyzing employee commuting patterns, an organization can suggest alternatives to single passenger commute and provide incentives to car pool and to take public transportation which would result in less traffic congestion and less use of fossil fuels, and less emissions.  This would require some adjustments in work schedules.
  • Monitoring safety – By monitoring and analyzing workers’ compensation claims and employee accidents, the organization can take steps to minimize hazardous situations or schedule additional safety training to lessen the chance of accidents.
  • Monitoring employee health – By monitoring employee health (health insurance claims, medication, laboratory results), the organization can identify employees who are at risk for various physical and mental problems that could benefit from a disease prevention program or protocol such as more aggressive treatment of diabetes and heart disease, within privacy and other regulatory restrictions.
  • Capturing intellectual capital – Intellectual capital is both organizational knowledge as well as industry knowledge.  It’s the ability to apply skills to complex situations, it’s the cognitive knowledge through training and experience, it’s the system understanding of cause and effects, it’s knowing how the business runs, it’s knowing how to avoid the minefields, it’s the knowledge of how to find information; who knows it and where to get it.  The problem today in many organizations is employee attrition; employees retire, resign, transfer to another department, or take a job with the competition. Intellectual capital can be captured in metadata which would include business definitions, valid values (domains), business rules, data ownership, data sources, data genealogy – how did the data get here, security and privacy, and data timeliness.  As intellectual capital goes beyond classical metadata, the enterprise may want to capture organizational history, stories of success and failures, post-mortems, case studies, and corporate culture.
  • Measuring employee satisfaction to reduce turnover – Employee turnover is disruptive to both the employee and the organization.  The primary reason for quitting is “The boss is a turkey.”  By identifying employees who are likely to leave, an organization can take appropriate actions such as transferring the employee to a more compatible boss, by counseling the manager, or shifting the manager’s staff.
  • Asset management –By analyzing asset data, an organization would have less need to purchase equipment and other assets that are not needed.
  • Inventory management – By analyzing inventory, including inventory on order, an organization would have less inventory to store, less that has to be discarded, with lower transportation costs with less resources devoted to transportation.
  • Demand forecasting and product planning – Better demand forecasting and improved product planning as a result of better demand analysis results in less product produced, less initial resource to manufacture the product, less packaging, and less transportation cost.
  • Supplier compliance – While a company may not itself contribute much to pollution, its suppliers may be a major contributor, especially if the supplier is in a country with lax pollution controls. When the media report on the pollution problem, the company producing or selling the final product will be identified and castigated.
  • Traffic data – By monitoring and analyzing traffic data and traffic patterns, traffic agencies are able to make wise decisions about establishing traffic patterns, one-way streets, parking restrictions, and other actions that will improve the flow of traffic resulting in shorter commutes, less gas wasted in stop-and-go traffic, and a workforce able to spend more time in productive and leisure activities.
  • Accident data – By monitoring and analyzing accident data, municipalities and state Departments of Transportation are in a position to make decisions about where to place stoplights, establish speed limit, and install other signage to minimize accidents.
  • Transportation – Transportation programs that direct the most efficient delivery of packages reduce fuel consumption, require less vehicle maintenance, and deliver more packages with the same number of employees.  The overall effect on the rest of us is less traffic congestion and the potential for fewer accidents.  UPS has a program called “No Left Turns.”  Left turns are a major contributor to vehicles idling and to accidents.
  • Healthcare – Outcomes analyses (medical results associated with different medical procedures) should result in improved medical protocols (means of treating disease) that should result in lower mortality and morbidity.
  • Manufacturing – Analyzing different means of packing and shipping manufactured goods can result in less packing material that has to be disposed of at the back end. Smaller packaging also means less fuel used in transportation.
  • Retail – The retail industry is able to nudge suppliers to reduce the packaging that contributes to transportation costs and disposal costs.  Retail also has sustainability opportunities in asset management and inventory management.
  • Efficiency of facilities – The first part of this application is having supportable data on the costs of heating, lighting, water, waste disposal, and then determining what actions can be taken to minimize those costs.  Often, there are up-front costs associated with reducing the use of these resources such as installing more energy efficient heating and cooling systems and installing motion detection for turning lights off when an office is not in use.


Some of these proposed applications may improve an organization’s finances as well as make a contribution to our planet.  Each idea requires thought, discussion, and adaptation to circumstances, but each idea is a starting point for using the concepts of sustainability in conjunction with data warehousing, business intelligence, analytics. 


Sid Adelman

Sid Adelman founded Sid Adelman & Associates, an organization specializing in planning and implementing Data Warehouses. He has consulted and written exclusively on data warehouse topics and the management of decision support environments.

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