Green IT: Is Greener Always Better?

The green trap is real. Going green with your IT environment requires a clear set of goals, target metrics and execution.

People use the term "green" as if it's inherently positive. Reducing emissions or your carbon footprint are indeed positive aspects of a green approach. For most organizations, though, the reality is that unless going green saves money in a quantifiable way, they're going to be skeptical of the investment. That's especially true in this current economic climate.

Going green can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. There's a good working definition of green computing on Wikipedia (, but there are really two basic ways to look at it: If you're building or creating something new, you want it to consume as little electricity and generate as little landfill waste as possible. If you have an existing computing infrastructure, going green may mean buying more efficient hardware. This may add to landfills in the short run, but puts you in a position to be more eco-friendly over the longer term.

Telecommuting is often brought up in the context of green business. This not only reduces energy (gas and electric) consumption, it probably has a net positive effect in employee morale. Don't discount that in the overall equation.

So all you need to do is figure out how much money you'll save and your business case is as good as solved, right? 

Wrong. Beware the trap.

Although the concept of "going green" has been around for years, there's still very limited data about the specific benefits (cost reductions or an increase in property value) of doing so. This is true whether the subject is IT or something as basic as retrofitting a building with more efficient windows and heaters. 

To further complicate matters, there's the notion of a collective carbon footprint. Just because you outsource technology services to a third-party organization that may provide those functions as a cloud service, you may have reduced your carbon footprint, but you've really just moved the work and the overall carbon footprint remains the same.

The "trap" is to dive into the green movement without a clear set of goals and target metrics. Here are some thoughts on where to start on the green journey.

Identify the Candidates
There's a huge amount of common work that goes on in every business. IT is a good example of that. Identify those areas of your business that are non-core (like IT in most cases). There are two reasons to start with the non-core areas:

  • You can look to best practices within and across industries for everything from performance measures to going green. Also, applying those best practices in non-core areas is lower risk.
  • The core areas are what differentiate your organization. There's a lot more risk involved with making changes in those areas, so unless you're confident that you know the impact of making a change in a core area, it's not advisable.

For identifying the candidates, techniques like those described in the book "Rethink" (FT Press, 2009; are effective because they're inherently more objective than something like a process workflow. Process workflow tends to be more of a description of "how" work is done as opposed to starting with the outcome or "what" you're doing first and then discussing if it matters how it gets done.

A simple example is to walk up to someone sending a fax and ask him "what" he's doing. He'll tell you he's sending a fax. As it turns out, what he's doing is communicating the status of something or confirming an order or something along those lines. "How" he's doing it is with a fax machine. By separating the two, you can now ask how valuable that activity is to the function involved and how it's performing. Then looking at the overall picture, you can get to highly objective conversations about where work is needed and what will help the overall to perform better.

In the case of non-core activities, you'll often see the same "what" show up repeatedly, having been masked by different "how" labels. When you see those, especially when the work is non-core, you can force a standard process or a standard set of software without a lot of discussion. The first two chapters of "Rethink" are available for free if you request them from the Web site (that same content is also free on the Kindle).

Measure the ‘As-Is' State
Measure all of the costs, soft and hard, related to the areas that are candidates for improvement so that when the project is over, you have clear and credible data to compare results. Going back to the telecommuting example, the hard costs of having people come into the office would be the amount of gas and electricity they use when they come in. Soft costs are things like employee satisfaction that can be measured in surveys, but aren't quite as straightforward as the financial numbers associated with energy use.

Set Your Target Metrics
Do some research to determine what's been attempted and what's worked. Get some actual success metrics to define targets to help make your business case. In some cases, you'll have to be a trailblazer, but that should be a small percentage of the time in your early green endeavors.

Look Outside IT
Look at other green success stories outside of IT and see if you can learn from their approach, their metrics and so forth.

Look to the Future
On June 10, 2010, a group calling themselves the American Energy Innovation Council produced a report called "A Business Plan for America's Energy Future." This group included Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and General Electric Co. CEO Jeff Immelt, among others. They asked the United States to triple the amount of money invested in researching the future of energy. 

What does this have to do with green IT? We're already using energy in ways we couldn't have predicted 10 years ago. It's a safe bet that in 10 more years, things will again be very different. We're starting to see how usage and sources of energy change. This will also change the cost/benefit models and that's something to watch carefully.

Get Funding
In this tough economic climate, even something that's going to save money in the long run won't necessarily get funded. Organizations need greater cost savings faster, so you need to test those waters. Funding is often a funny thing, and it really boils down to getting into the head of the decision maker who holds the purse strings.

Some decision makers will decide on purely financial terms, so you have to make it clear that there's enough money in the current budget and the return on investment will be well worth the cost. Others will be receptive to the lift in employee morale and the brand lift for being a more green company. Still, some decision makers are going to want to talk with other organizations that have embarked on similar projects and succeeded. Know your audience and tailor your message accordingly.

Rolling out your green effort, like any project, will take planning, rigor and discipline. Like any other project, there will be surprises and those need to be carefully documented in case they can influence the success or predictability of future green projects.

Measure the Results
Having measured the "before" you should also measure the "after" and generate concrete results on both the short- and long-term benefits of the green effort.

Where to Start
Identifying the most likely candidates for the green conversion is the best starting point. Motion-activated lights that turn themselves on is an obvious way to save money on building refits. Similarly, a lot of servers and technology are left running all the time. Thinking of ways to turn them off or have some form of "sleep" mode in bulk can be another way to save money.

Looking for ways to reduce the amount of paper that's used is another common example. At Microsoft, when it's time to sign annual reviews, that's all done electronically without a single piece of paper. That's huge for a company the size of Microsoft.

In the case of the larger economic impact, having people share workspaces and having the option to work from home can not only increase the amount of time the employee works, it will reduce the amount of gas they burn. That is a factor that you can capture and quantify.

That's a start, at least. The green movement is fantastic, but business is business. Unless you have some concrete predictable benefits, your efforts may not get very far.

About the Author

Ric Merrifield leads business architecture endeavors at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., and is a coauthor of "The Next Revolution in Productivity" (Harvard Business Review, 2008). Merrifield is also the author of the book "Rethink -- A Business Manifesto for Cutting Costs and Boosting Innovation" (FT Press, 2009).


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