The Greening of the CIO

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by: Joel Makower

The notion of a corporate chief information officer is fairly new — less than thirty years old — but the CIO's role has grown in lockstep with the strategic importance of information and knowledge management inside companies. Their ability to think strategically about information technology can help a company innovate, grow markets, streamline operations, cut costs, and generally improve competitiveness.

Now, the CIO is poised to help companies be greener, too.

That's my takeaway from a two-day CIO Summit convened last week by Cisco, the $35 billion purveyor of Internet networking hardware, software, and solutions. The event brought together CIOs from about 120 large companies — mostly Cisco's customers and partners. I was invited to moderate a panel of CIOs to talk about their role in the greening of business.

It wasn't a topic to which I had previously given much thought. What could a CIO do that would significantly reduce a company's environmental footprint? The one obvious connection had to do with the rising energy use of information technology equipment, as we've been covering daily on and as I've written about in the past. For some companies, the energy costs of IT are becoming burdensome.

But the energy use of computers and such is just the beginning. It seems there are other potentially powerful ways in which chief information officers can play a role in the greening of companies. Here are two brief examples:

  • Monitoring real-time energy use: Smart information systems yield gobs of data in real-time. Some companies — Wal-Mart, for example — have utilized that to the fullest, monitoring system-wide sales up to the minute, creating super-efficient supply chains and reducing inventory (and, thus, warehouse space) to a bare minimum. Those information-gathering and monitoring capabilities haven't yet been widely applied to most companies' own operations, specifically to their energy use. I'm continually amazed at how little companies understand how they use energy, and how much they use. For example, one CIO I spoke with told me his expansive corporate campus is metered as a whole; individual buildings and facilities aren't individually metered. That makes it all but impossible to monitor, track, and reduce energy use at the facility level, and to determine the ripest opportunities to make cost-cutting improvements.


    As the electricity grid gets smarter and more Web-enabled, CIOs will be in a position to more closely monitor every aspect of their energy use across a vast campus or even a global chain of facilities. That, in turn, will enable companies to ratchet back energy-draining appliances (refrigeration units and HVACs, for example), or switch to alternative or back-up power, in order to avoid peak-power costs. The long-touted energy web will be a boon to the IT crowd, creating new opportunities for them to cut costs and streamline operations with an eye to save energy and reduce a company's carbon footprint. And such monitoring isn't limited to energy. It can be applied to water use and other resource flows.

    Of course, all this can be done externally, too. For example, Southern California Edison, the large energy utility, plans to monitor five million customer meters every 15 seconds, yielding huge amounts of real-time data. Transforming that data to provide feedback to customers on how to optimize their energy use can provide valuable benefits to both parties — saving money for customers and educing Edison's need to build costly new generating capacity.


  • Reducing Travel Needs. For many companies, the environmental impacts of business travel represent a significant part of their footprint. And business people bemoan the fact that there simply aren't good alternatives to face-to-face meetings — videoconferencing, for one, leaves a lot to be desired.


    That could change, thanks to expanding broadband networks and advancing technology. At the CIO Summit, I had the opportunity to demo Cisco's TelePresence technology, a videoconference service that's the next best thing to being there. TelePresence features a half-oval conference table that's mirrored life-size by one or more duplicate settings at various locations, giving the feeling of being at the same table (see photo). In my demo, there were people from four locations in the U.S. and U.K. "meeting." It's still not the same as being there, but it provided a pretty realistic approximation.

    TelePresence isn't the only videoconferencing technology, but it's one of the smarter ones, and if it catches on it stands to make a dent in travel. Cisco says that since the start of the year, it has held 30,000 TelePresence meetings — about 1,000 a week — and that the utilization rate for its facilities is sixty percent, compared to six percent for its older teleconferencing facilities.

    Teleconferencing won't replace all meetings, but if improved technologies like TelePresence can eliminate employee travel by just ten percent, that could provide a meaningful reduction in some companies' footprint. (As an aside, one CIO told me that his company's sales team's performance rose when they started utilizing videoconferencing, thus reducing travel. It turns out that salespeople are happier when they get to stay at home with their families, and happier salespeople tend to be more productive.)

    I'm guessing that very few companies are thinking of their CIOs as strategic players on the green scene — that most companies assume, as I did, that aside from the energy consumption of IT equipment, there aren't many other CIO linkages with their company's environmental performance. That's simply wrong — and a lost opportunity. As environmental challenges and opportunities continue to spread across company functions — well beyond traditional environmental departments to include every nook and cranny of business operations — the information needs and capabilities will loom large. Along the way, CIOs will stand to become key players in the growing world of green business.

    And maybe make their companies' sales team a little happier along the way.

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