Greyer shade of green

Are sustainable IT policies always compatible with an organisation's wider corporate agenda?

As veterans of many greener IT initiatives, techies are increasingly being turned to as corporate carbon champions, leading programmes for change action. 'Green' still carries a pejorative meaning in many management circles, but senior executives are keen to be quoted making eco-friendly noises regarding their organisations; but at what point does the green ideal blunt itself on the hard edges of commercial reality?

This year sees the advent of two major conferences focused on the role of IT in the greening of the enterprise - the Green IT Summit (March), and Green IT 08 (May). A prevailing theme at both events is that looking at IT in isolation is a redundant notion - because enterprises rely absolutely on their IT infrastructures, an effective carbon control programme encompasses all aspects of their activity. The delegates attending these events are self-selecting: there to learn more about current perceived models of best practice, and engage in debate over what green IT initiatives are practical.

Some spiky divisions are already forming among proponents regarding how to instill a green IT mindset in colleagues who may be indifferent to its ambits. Take staff who neglect to switch off PCs, monitors, printers, and other appliances when they leave the office - leaving them burning electricity, and pumping out fumes into the workplace overnight.

The 'carrot' camp claims that the most effective approach to behavioural change is an orchestrated schedule of awareness training, aimed at engaging with staff to educate them about how individuals can make a key contribution to energy efficiency as part of an holistic carbon control strategy. The 'stick' camp, meanwhile, says this is a load of namby-pamby pussyfootying, and that careless colleagues should be named and blamed into changing their ways.

The 'stick' camp further argues that fussing over the introduction of green IT guidance risks jaundicing vital support from the board, because it sounds like going green will foster recalcitrance among the workforce, and also require expenditure before any cost savings start to show. Pure greenists argue that cost savings should not be the primary motivation for an organisation to adopt a green IT policy; maybe so. But the share price hawks will always place financial imperatives before nice-but-not-absolutely-necessary brand virtues.

Getting the board onboard

That go-green initiatives will only succeed if they are sponsored and supported by senior management is a well-worn mantra at green IT rallies. As said, most directors can guff-up a pro-planet mission statement on request; it's core to the corporate social responsibility remit. The snag is that, as commercial exigencies arise, green stuff is be prone to sliding down the management agenda, and easily gets 'parked' until the current boardroom crisis has passed.

Governing bodies - boards, trustees - are entitled to ask challenging questions of mooted green policies, and hold up to question some well-worn green shibboleths. For instance, adopting a green IT policy is supposed to reduce power consumption, and thus lower electricity bills. The snag here is that quantifying the metrics of IT power consumption in most extended enterprises - especially those based across multiple sites - is no easy exercise.

First, IT managers have to inventory all computing equipment that the IT department 'owns', and this can include anything and everything from PDAs to mainframes, plus all the gubbings that sits between. Getting a ballpark figure on how much power this kit consumes would be daunting even if it were all taking its power feed from a single dedicated circuit. But, of course, this is rarely, if ever, the case. In most offices IT equipment shares the same circuit as other electrical equipment - photocopiers, fax machines, document shredders, drinks vending machines. So extrapolating how much of the overall power consumption total can be ascribed solely to IT is not so easy.

Then there is the issue of whether IT bosses can gain sight of the actual bills. Access to such corporate information can be a political issue, a privilege often jealously guarded inside organisations. Information is power, and information about power could easily be regarded as most sensitive. Furthermore, facilities management and finance departments may be unwilling to acknowledge that power consumption is not only uncontrolled, but out of control. Green IT will have to resolve many more such grey areas before its campaign is won.

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