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Sustainable Dog Food

With governments issuing environmental and sustainability regulations as fast as their burocrats can write them and companies pushing out compliance products as fast as their development teams can read the new regulations, companies who need to undergo the greenwash can be forgiven for seeing their highest aim here as not breaking the law.

What that means we can all too easily imagine. They install the latest SAP sustainability compliance monitor, hire a few hands to serve the new screens, and issue regular reports to company officers and government inspectors. Each quarter thereafter, the managers make an effort to generate good numbers and so the percentages look just a hair better than before. Everyone is now happy that they’re doing their bit to save the planet.

But this is terrible! A process could generate ten times more carbon emissions than it needs to, but if the SAP developers transcribed a goverment regulation that merely asked for the actual emission to be recorded once a month, for example, a sustainability scorecard could show a steady improvement of one or two percent a month, and everyone would proudly think all was well. This is the bean-counter approach in action.

Radical thinking is the way forward here. End-to-end thinking by people who understand the technology behind the process under study is the least we need to identify the potential for order-of-magnitude improvements. If this sounds utopian, it is probably because we have lulled ourselves into imagining that in an “optimized” process chain only incremental changes are possible. Yet the world is full of examples where order-of-magnitude changes are not only possible but really quite feasible.

Consider an example from SAP’s own operations. SAP issues company cars and has a natural interest in minimizing their contribution to global warming. So we classify cars by their carbon footprint and measure the drivers’ ongoing fuel usage. If necessary, we could issue rules to trim usage or encourage car-pooling. If we did so, we would surely announce proudly how many percent per month we were saving with the new rules.

But excuse me, who needs cars? In Germany we have a pretty good public transport infrastructure that could quite easily be made even better, for example with online dynamic scheduling via bus-stop touch screens or minibuses with luxury seating for fastidious executives. In SAP we could reduce the need for daily car use even more by setting up a supermarket and a drugstore on campus, setting up more daycare centers for kids, opening the canteens into the evenings and enhancing their ambience, and so on. Company cars could then be SAP-taxed to reflect their full impact, and a parkhouse could be converted to a dormitory for employees who were too tired to bicycle home at night.

Closer to our core business, what about all the power consumed by SAP hardware servers running day and night? Of course we can power down machines not in use, upgrade to less power-hungry chipsets, convert to OLED screens as soon as possible, and so on. All that will generate steady percentage improvements and delight the bean-counters. But how about generating the power in a green way, say with a few big wind turbines or a giant solar collector on campus? Local power avoids transmission losses and creates a vivid symbol for us all to see. Also, we could write software to run the installations and sell it as a new SAP solution.

One of the most effective principles for developing quality software is “Eat your own dog food.” By walking the walk, we create prototypes for new products that meet a need we know, and do so in a way that we know really works. We could eat enough dog food to transform Waldorf, and perhaps Palo Alto and Bangalore too, into a sustainability model for the world, and in the process create in-house expertise that would really enable us to do end-to-end-thinking based on understanding the whole process for other communities worldwide.

My take-away message here is that sustainability had better not be just an excuse for another set of SAP transactions with nice screens for monitoring compliance. Many of our customers would doubtless be grateful for just such transactions, but we need to do more, not only to satisfy our conscience but to save the world.

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  • The argument for an order of magnitude change is all well and good, and you make a persuasive case for what is possible at SAP. However, I would ask that you consider that, in order to help your customers, you might want to consider that not all of us are as far along the path to sustainability as you all evidently are. How fortunate you are that "in Germany Gretchen

  • You're right that many people still need cars, and many more like them. I have one too, I just take care how much I use it. Daily commuting by car should not be necessary for most people. Agreed, ensuring that SAP solutions work for communities at different levels of development makes good business sense.
    • It ain't cheap for any company to make an aggressive sustainability push now.

      1. In a market where SAP's revenues are lower, will the company make capital investments for wind turbines and day cares? or will it rather develop a product to measure emissions via a fancy screen and sell it to make some money? This same problem exists for charitable activities funded by big corps - they are cutting down, with the argument that they need to make money first to give money away.

      2. Assuming carpooling increases several fold, demands for cars should come down - further increasing the current auto industry crisis in US, and starting similar problems in other countries. An argument can be made that people should buy hybrid cars - but they are pricey, and if demand is lower any way - price won't come down easily either for hybrids (I couldnot justify the cost of buying a prius myself ). If some one takes a popular vote - which will win? remaining employed (in a car company) or being sustainable in a hurry?.

      Don't get me wrong here - I am NOT against sustainability at all, just that I don't see businesses spending big $$ to jump start it. The stance I have seen most companies take these days is - let us build (and sell) measuring mechanisms first, and then eventually use the results to determine the best way to become sustainable.

      At least for near future, I only see the bean counter mentality prevailing, and not the big radical initiatives you proposed. I hope I am wrong and several companies do bite the bullet and invest in sustainability projects.