June 2, 2010

SAP and the Greening of a Service Business

It's always easier to picture how a manufacturing company can go green — just cut back on energy, waste, and material to reduce air and water pollution, for example. But what does it mean for a service-focused business, such as a software company, to travel down the sustainability path?

Last week I got an interesting view on how enterprise software giant SAP is pursuing a green agenda. Sustainability was a core theme at SAP's annual meeting SAPPHIRE NOW, a large gathering of over 16,000 CIOs and tech professionals. (Full disclosure: SAP hired me to speak at the event.)

So how does a company with a seemingly small physical footprint create real value from pursuing sustainability? SAP seems to be pursuing three paths that are a good framework to keep in mind.

First, walk the talk. SAP is first reducing its own impacts. Last year, the company saved $90 million Euros through eco-efficiency, including a 7% reduction in energy consumption. A good portion of the savings came from reducing air travel, which makes up 35% of the company's total carbon impact. SAP also got lean in its IT operations; for the first time ever last year, it had fewer servers when the year ended than when it began.

SAP also worked to engage employees and tackled some smaller, symbolic issues like paper use. Sustainability managers placed large stacks of empty paper boxes in the cafeteria to demonstrate how much employees used in a single day. The company has also asked its 50,000 employees to take "100,000 steps" (that is, two each, or one for each foot) to be more sustainable in their lives.

Second, and far more importantly, help your customers reduce their impacts, a core greening strategy for any company. As co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe put it during his keynote, SAP wants to be "an Enabler." Snabe continued, "We believe transactional systems we have installed in many customers have information that...can help customers manage resources — not just human capital, materials or money but scarce resources like water, energy and CO2...This is the mission we have taken on with sustainability."

SAP took a hard look at its product line to see if it could deliver on this vision. In the last year, the company acquired Clear Standards, a well-respected carbon footprint software company (rebranding it Carbon Impact), and announced it will purchase Technidata, a leading provider of environmental, health, and safety management software. Last week, SAP execs were running around the show floor, gleefully demonstrating how cool Carbon Impact looked on an iPad, and demonstrating how it helps SAP analyze its own footprint data.

As an example of how SAP envisions working with companies to enable sustainability goals, execs describe how the company helped oil refiner Valero harmonize its operational systems. By obtaining much better information on energy use and processes across the organization, Valero was able to save $120 million in energy costs last year (and an expected $200 million-plus in 2010) and slash environmental incidents 63% since 2006. The savings realized from having better data available is a perfect example of the "Prius effect" that I've written about before.

By working in this way with their customers, SAP is able to reduce impacts and create value far beyond what it could just do internally.

Third, communicate clearly with customers and stakeholders about how your products and services help the cause. SAP has developed a view on the key operational focal areas that companies need to manage well to head down the road to sustainability. The company created a "Sustainability Map" that includes 33 topics — such as sourcing, logistics, design, and green IT - across 8 functional areas of the business. These topics map to some broad goals that SAP argues drive sustainable value creation (such as reducing operation risk and improving resource productivity).

The map is a critical part of the company's new CSR report, an innovative, social-media-driven approach to both discussing the company's impacts and pitching its solutions. This dual-purpose report makes sense for a service business.

Dr. Peter Graf, the company's Chief Sustainability Officer, put SAP's shift in large, strategic terms and made it clear that providing customers with solutions was critical to the company's future: "When we look at sustainability we compare it to other fundamental megatrends [such as] globalization and the Internet. Sustainability is going to be similar in the way it fundamentally changes all business processes...so as the leader in business process technology, we have to play, and we have no choice but to lead." (See a streaming video of an interview with Peter Graf and me here — you'll have to register, and then look under "keynotes and broadcasts").

For many years, IT companies felt that they didn't have a lot of skin in the sustainability game — they didn't have big smokestacks, after all. But now even service companies like SAP are seeing the deep connection between green and business growth survival.

[This post first appeared at Harvard Business Review Online]

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On July 27, 2010 10:18 PM, Margaret, a green business student said:

The service sector has been overlooked for too long as a place to reduce our environmental footprint. If changing your light bulbs at home can make a difference, why can't changing them in the office?

Indeed, these changes seem small in comparison to shutting down smoke stacks, but in reality even a small office can make a huge impact. The average US office worker goes through 10,000 sheets of copy paper a year! Hopefully more people will realize that to really tackle our environmental issues we must approach it from all sides, in all of our daily practices.

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