The potential to use data to drive both process- and people-related internal efficiencies is well understood. But where and how can data be leveraged to help businesses operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner? And how do Chief Data Officers (CDOs) approach this aspect of their mandate, given the magnitude of their existing data-related responsibilities? 

We recently spoke with Robin Sutara, CDO of Microsoft in the UK. She shares her experiences in spearheading the company’s efforts to use ‘data for good’ and explains how Microsoft is applying its technology prowess to assist the businesses with which it works to drive more environmentally responsible behaviours and outcomes within their own operations.

Sutara shares her thoughts on:

  • The value of establishing a collaborative and supportive CDO community to drive the ‘data for good’ agenda
  • Ways to iteratively improve existing processes to enable an organisation to become more efficient and effective and eliminate waste
  • Initiatives focused on using data in ways never-before-imagined that can spark radical process innovation
  • How to position sustainability-focused data initiatives at the Board level to secure budget

Building a data community  

Sutara explains that Microsoft is actively forging open lines of communication and collaboration with other data leaders to pinpoint their specific data-related challenges. Microsoft’s objective is to feed those insights back into the Microsoft system so it can create better products and services to accelerate the achievement of these goals. 

Specifically, Microsoft is seeking to assist the wider CDO community in finding ways to use their data to advance their organisations’ environmental and broader corporate social responsibility agendas. 

Microsoft has itself been leading the charge in this regard, setting some ambitious internal targets, such as becoming carbon-negative, water-positive and waste-neutral within its own operations and processes.  

“As a technology company that has a commitment to using AI and data for the greater good of society, we’re always looking for ways to unite our knowledge and learnings with our technology to help others make more sustainable business decisions,” says Sutara. 

To move ahead with a sustainability-focused data strategy, Sutara suggests CDOs take a two-pronged approach that involves iterative process improvements on the one hand and process innovation on the other: 

Iterative process improvement   

This involves actively seeking out ways to use the data you’ve gathered to automate certain existing processes in a way that improves efficiencies, saves time or eliminates waste. You can also create new processes that improve on existing ones to make them more environmentally sustainable or ‘neutral’. 

“Essentially, you need to look at your existing internal capabilities and culture and ask yourself how you can use these as the foundation on which to set new goals and objectives that will positively impact your overall value chain,” explains Sutara. 

By means of example, she cites a traditional stainless steel manufacturer that decided to revisit its existing internal processes holistically: “Everyone from senior leadership to shop floor workers were asked for input in finding ways for the organisation to become more effective and efficient, minimise waste and improve the supply chain. All of this in a steel manufacturing operation that’s been around for hundreds of years!”  

Process innovation  

Sutara explains that other companies seek to create and innovate their processes in radical new ways. “For example, a fisheries regulator has recently come up with a novel approach to tackle the problem of illegal fishing off the coastline that’s been creating supply chain shortages,” she explains. “They’re coupling the data they gather with machine learning and IoT to develop new regulations and tracking and tracing capabilities. Essentially, they’ve established a new technology ecosystem that solves a complex problem in creative ways.”  

Securing Board-level buy-in  

CDOs will agree that one of their top challenges is successfully motivating for data-related budget at the Boardroom level. Many feel that their chances of securing additional investment for data projects focused on sustainability will be limited, especially in the current economic climate.  

Sutara argues that rather than presenting sustainability-focused data efforts as new or standalone projects, CDOs should instead position them as a part or extension of ongoing initiatives. 

“Success happens when organisations start thinking of sustainability as an aspect of their current data motions, not as a separate or incremental step,” she adds.


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