The IT Sustainability Paradox

IT leaders today often find themselves grappling with a perplexing situation. On one hand, they face growing pressure to drive sustainability initiatives and reduce the environmental impact of their operations. Expectations from executives, customers, and society at large are on the rise. Then on the other hand, IT departments can struggle to get the buy-in, resources and strategic influence needed to turn the sustainability ambitions of both IT and the organisation as a whole into reality.

Recent research from Freeform Dynamics, in association with Fujitsu, provides insight into this challenging dynamic and the hurdles IT leaders can face in the pursuit of sustainable IT.

Rising expectations, notable complications

The research suggests that IT is feeling the pressure when it comes to sustainability. 70% of IT leaders say the expectations on IT to support sustainability are high, with 61% feeling IT is expected to actively help the business be more sustainable. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the current climate, almost four in every five say these expectations are increasing.

But despite this clear signal, IT leaders report facing a number of barriers in driving the sustainability agenda. Over two thirds agree that IT doesn’t always move in the right circles to influence strategic priorities, while lack of stakeholder appreciation for IT’s potential positive impact is cited as an impediment by more than three-quarters of respondents. These are two challenges that illustrate some culture and communication challenges IT leaders regularly face.

That said, IT’s sustainability ambitions can also be constrained by practical challenges. 76% indicate a lack of time to develop solution ideas as an issue, while a similar number highlight that overstretched IT teams can be reluctant to take on additional sustainability-related work.

Clearly in many cases IT leaders are caught between rising demands and practical constraints. The business increasingly expects them to be sustainability champions, but they may not always have the influence, resources, and bandwidth to meet those expectations. It’s a precarious balancing act that many in IT will recognise.

Charting a course forward

So how might IT leaders navigate this complex landscape and drive meaningful sustainability progress? The research points to a few key considerations.

Education is often seen as important. Half of IT leaders see education for executives and the business on how IT can deliver sustainability benefits as a high priority, with a further 42% rating it as a medium priority. By proactively educating and engaging stakeholders, IT can start to build understanding, trust, and alignment around sustainability.

Many IT leaders also recognise the value of being more deeply involved in shaping the overall business sustainability strategy, rather than solely being in a reactive or supporting role. 47% see increasing IT’s involvement in setting the sustainability agenda as a high priority, with 43% rating it a medium priority. This suggests an appetite among many IT leaders to take a more central, influential role in corporate sustainability efforts. Indeed, such efforts can help IT establish a fruitful business-IT partnership that stretches beyond sustainability. 

There is also a common view that sustainability needs to become more embedded into the IT organisation itself. 43% of respondents see making sustainability an integral part of all IT decision-making as a high priority, with 47% rating it a medium priority. A similar number prioritise integrating sustainability metrics into core IT processes such as supplier management, monitoring and reporting. The implication is that treating sustainability as a separate, siloed concern may not be optimal but ideally needs to be woven into IT’s overall approach and operations covering all aspects of the IT service delivery lifecycle.

Navigating the paradox

The research illustrates that IT leaders today often face a real balancing act when it comes to sustainability. Expectations are rising, but the barriers to progress can be significant. The IT Sustainability Paradox is a reality for many.

So how can IT leaders move forwards? As already mentioned, focusing on technology alone is not the answer. Instead IT should seek to enhance how it communicates to its user communities. Establishing strategic engagement pathways with business users and engaging in mutual education while integrating sustainability into the IT organisation offer paths forward. With the right approach, IT leaders can navigate the paradox and make a meaningful difference on the sustainability front, while simultaneously helping to raise awareness of the strategic value of IT.

For IT leaders looking to turn sustainability ambitions into reality, now is a good time to start chipping away at those barriers, however formidable they may appear. In a world increasingly focused on sustainability, inaction may not be a wise choice, and may soon be no choice at all as legislative demands increase. The IT Sustainability Paradox is a complex challenge, but certainly not an insurmountable one.

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