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Google and the Green Economy: Lessons in Process Innovation

Guest post by Samia Mazhar Global efforts to reach a climate change agreement in Paris later this year are gaining momentum not only in the halls of some parliaments but also in the corporate world. In this guest post, an Australian scholar of project management and innovation, Samia Mazhar, explores ways one major corporate power...

Guest post by Samia Mazhar

Global efforts to reach a climate change agreement in Paris later this year are gaining momentum not only in the halls of some parliaments but also in the corporate world. In this guest post, an Australian scholar of project management and innovation, Samia Mazhar, explores ways one major corporate power is harnessing the green economy through a systems-based approach to their advantage and for planetary prosperity.

The grapevines are abuzz with opinions on the upcoming twenty first Conference of Parties or COP21, a.k.a. the Climate Summit in Paris, December 2015. There are many hopes invested in the negotiations to be undertaken by global players, as they attempt to put in measures to address the now well-accepted climate crisis. One main purpose of this summit is to identify ways to mitigate the impending catastrophic outcomes of global warming for humans and other organisms by the end of the century, ideally before they happen. The Sustainable Innovation Forum is a major “business-focused side event” at the conference, which (among other things) will explore how corporations and investors can contribute to the Green Economy (described by UNEP as being “low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive”).

Numerous initiatives demonstrate the benefits of moving to such an economy, however some developed countries, are seen to still need some convincing. Australia is among those that did not fare well in the Global Green Economy Index in 2014, and the current administration has a role to play in this. Yet aside from the to-ing and fro-ing of politics, one might ask: what can corporations do to systematically contribute to the solution while leaders re-negotiate their commitments year after year on the global stage?

Some companies have decided to take things into their own hands and grab the sustainability bull by the horns – Google is one of them. It has made massive changes to the way it lives and breathes – an organization is after all a bit like a mega-organism. Google the Organism has understood the value of favorable living conditions (infrastructure), good habits (processes), harmonious thinking (strategy, systems and knowledge), encouraging symbiotic relationships internally and externally (socially, technologically and environmentally), healthy consumption (efficient inputs), and low impact waste (outputs). In short, Google is leveraging input efficiency, well-managed outputs, and a positive image (even inspiring this article) – all high-value outcomes.

Google’s publicly available announcements about the measures taken to “go green” have been studied and de-constructed for this article to identify some patterns behind their success.

Pattern 1: The Subject

The measures can be seen at a high level to spread across three general areas within a business, namely:

  • Processes: Strategic, supporting or core business activities conducted in an organization, the related inputs/outputs, the business rules that guide them, and the roles that execute them
  • Systems: Built environment, utilities, infrastructure services, technology and information systems that enable or drive the processes, and management systems that guide implementation and reporting on executed processes to achieve specific intent across organizational entities
  • People: Internal and external stakeholders, implicitly/explicitly held knowledge across staff, and organizational culture

The examples they have stated overlap across these areas, and reveal types of improvements summarized in the following Venn diagram (Figure 1):

ScreenHunter_162 Apr. 20 09.02
Figure 1: Google’s Process Improvement Approach – Figure by the author


Pattern 2: The Scale

The second pattern is around the scale of implementation (and its intended impact) chosen for improvement in terms of considerations inter alia like how big the change is, how far-reaching the impact:

  1. Immediate term: “What must we do right now?” – actions that can be taken without having to perform in-depth analysis, e.g. basic improvement using energy efficient lighting and switching to recycled paper.
  2. Short term: “What must we figure out now, to do in the coming months?” – actions requiring at least an insight into the high level overview of the factors that across energy and resource conservation, e.g. establishing partnerships and green investments, and self-harvesting energy or water.
  3. Medium term: “What must we understand deeply to take our game to the next level?” – decisions resulting from in-depth analysis of the processes and/or surrounding context, e.g. thorough analysis of root-causes or ecosystem services impact
  4. Long term: “What needs to be fundamentally re-thought in order for our business to thrive sustainably” – redesign of organizational paradigms around operations, products or services, e.g. providing products and services that encourage customers and suppliers to be more green.

Pattern 3: The Steps

The final pattern identified is for the steps or approach, which is strikingly similar to one that is oft-used in the world of Information Systems – known as the Business Process Management or BPM lifecycle as shown below (Figure 2):

Fundamentals of business process management. Berlin: Springer, 2013
Figure 2: The BPM Lifecycle – adapted from Dumas, M., La Rosa, M., Mendling, J., Reijers, H. – Fundamentals of business process management. Berlin: Springer, 2013.

The context of the business process is expanded to people and systems (from in the first pattern set) to demonstrate how easily the BPM lifecycle can describe the framework for improvement. Each step is considered in terms of environmental sustainability, followed by non-exhaustive examples from Google:

  1. Selection

Once the strategic expectations are established for the improvement project, the first step is to identify the top priority focus area. This can be done using different lenses, a good place to start is to use types of inputs and outputs as indicators that need to become more efficient or less problematic.

Google chooses: Energy in/out; food in/out; water in/out; waste out; and equipment in/out.

  1. Discovery

Based on the indicators to be studied, the related people, processes and systems from Pattern 1 are identified and a discovery exercise is carried out to accurately capture, map or model the the as-is or current involvement of the indicators from Step 1 across processes, people and systems.

Google captures the as-is version via: Thermal modelling of building hot-spots and data center air flow; employee transport needs; and existing water consumption and heating systems.

  1. Analysis

Once the As-Is situation has been captured, various levels of analysis can be carried out to better understand the impact on the indicators by the organization, and the impact of the indicators on the community. This is the point to apply the many measurement, analysis and simulation tools available, e.g. across consultancies, universities, and not-for-profit associations. This is also the point to identify bottlenecks and opportunities to reduce organizational waste – i.e. lean management from a green angle.

Google analyzes: data center efficiency using “Power Usage Effectiveness” measures; assessment of correct types and quantities of food to source; and materials and products sourced for built environment.

  1. Improvement

Once we know what to improve, when, and by how much, the creative (and sometimes rather straightforward) activity of figuring out how to make this happen economically commences. Reduced inputs or waste through better procurement, managed processes or repurposing, as well as reduced impacts through offsetting negative environmental impacts are among the many options available.

Google improved via: repurposing 300,000 outdated servers; harvesting own rain-water and solar energy; cooling with natural environment; and establishing GFleet car-sharing program with electric cars.

  1. Implementation

Selected improvements are then introduced similar to other organizational changes that need to managed, based on the scale of implementation from Pattern 2. Internal and external stakeholders – from employees to the extended supply chain to the ecosystem services impacted – are identified and appropriately engaged and impacts across them are managed to ensure critical success factors are addressed.

Google engages: Supply chains for responsible product and energy sourcing; employees to learn needs and provide sustainability incentives; and research institutions, government agencies, and public organizations.

  1. Execution

On implementing the improvement, the framework for determining successful execution of sustainability initiatives needs to be established, including reporting structures, targets for the indicators from step 1, and measures for improved outcomes for ecosystems services and the community.

Google successfully executes: savings of over 29,000 metric tons of CO2 and production of 3,000,000 kWh of clean energy annually; use of efficient servers reducing loss of energy by half; savings of around 24 million gallons of potable water annually through water harvesting, treatment, and recycling; and working towards goals of eliminating 100% known toxic substances from buildings.

  1. Monitoring & Controlling

Day-to-day operations are monitored and minor deviations from the desired outcomes are managed. Performance of the indicators is reported, analyzed and, where required, controlled via appropriate measures. Management systems for ensuring compliance to external standards contributing to environmental sustainability are used here as well. If an adequate problem or opportunity for improvement is revealed, it becomes a reason to return to Step 1 Selection.

Google uses: ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001 and ISO 50001; and US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

In conclusion, the massive savings related to energy and resources due to such changes can easily justify organizational initiatives towards environmental sustainability. All that is needed now is a new perspective applied to tried-and-tested approaches by slightly reframing the problem and solution. Every organization in the world can follow a systematic pathway such as this and enter the Green Economy. As someone once said “if it has been done, it must be possible.”

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.