Beyond spreadsheets: How big data and affordable software are helping companies to radically improve their sustainability performance

Where hundreds of thousands are spent on smart customer relationship and supply chain software, or advanced marketing analytics, it is still not uncommon to find global environmental data being crunched on a clunky old spreadsheet.

Better business intelligence enables better business decisions.  However, most organisations do not track environmental data such as carbon emission or water use when looking at how to optimise business efficiency. 

In theory doing this should provide an excellent lens to look at overall efficiency across different locations and processes. This can highlight where equipment is not operating as expected, or inefficient procedures that result in energy or water waste. It also provides the evidence necessary to make a robust business case for investing into new or upgraded technologies.

But in practice, data on sustainability metrics is all too often lumped together once a year for the sake of annual reporting, which ends up being the sole purpose for its collection.

Part of the problem is that sustainability data can come from any area of the business, from different teams and in different formats.  It can therefore be difficult to consolidate the data in a way that provides useful information across the organisation.

However, this is all starting to change. Companies are taking increasingly integrated approaches to data, finding ways to bring sustainability metrics into their wider evaluation of performance.

This shift is being unlocked by the same driving forces that are behind the rise of the Internet of Things: cheaper meters and sensors to collect information, alongside the ability to access and aggregate large quantities of data in smarter ways.  It is getting easier and easier to combine disparate and disorganised pieces of information, to automate the cleaning of the data, and to report this in an organised fashion.

Software plays an important role in enabling effective decisions to be made using this data. Traditionally, bespoke sustainability software had to be developed, often over a long period of time. But the rise and improvement of all purpose Business Intelligence (BI) software has meant that organisations can now create highly tailored BI solutions, which in many cases are just as powerful and useful as many tailored sustainability software solutions. 

In fact, BI solutions can sometimes offer visualisations of data that have more impact and insight than traditional sustainability software. This is because sustainability teams have the ability to customise the outputs themselves, rather than always relying on software developers for every small change. 

Beyond this, BI solutions are supported by some of the world’s largest software companies, and can integrate with an organisation’s existing IT software license. The prime example of this is Microsoft’s suite of BI software. 

One example of putting this into practice is finding ways to improve approaches to employee business travel, which is often a large source of costs and carbon emissions. Standard BI software can connect directly to raw data on travel, refreshing whenever this is updated or new information is added. And this can all be done online, so it is immediately accessible.

The data collected can be readily displayed and broken down, so it can be visualised at multiple levels. For example, you can view emissions by time period, operating company, business units, teams, individuals, travel modes, class of ticket, or any combination of the aforementioned options.   

By being able to look right down to specific departure airports and even individual employees, this allows companies to make smarter decisions about travel policies and ask the right questions that can result in substantial cost savings.

The same is true with vehicle telematics, especially larger vehicles, such as those used in construction and mining. With very large vehicles driver behaviour can make a huge difference to fuel costs for the same amount of work being done. These fuel costs can be higher than labour costs for the drivers, so the information can be used to create incentive schemes to improve behaviour, or as a way of targeting training programmes. 

There are even ways to use these advanced approaches to sustainability data to drive the growth of business units, so long as the right metrics and methodologies are applied. A number of ICT companies, such as BT and AT&T, are now working towards goals for how their products and services are enabling their customers to reduce carbon emissions in their own operations.

It is only through good measurement that sustainability issues can truly be managed effectively. The sooner that clunky old spreadsheets are put into retirement – whether through specialist sustainability software or BI solutions – the better the outcomes will be for the planet. 


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