In the past 18 months, many of my colleagues have moved to electric vehicles (EVs). The switch has been fuelled by an EV-only company car scheme and generous UK tax breaks, alongside newly found passions for sustainability and a bunch of gimmicks like iPads for dashboards or the ability to play La Cucaracha on the horn at traffic lights.
Pardon the electric pun, but I’m a resistor. I wasn’t super impressed with my first EV experience aged eight when I had a Scalextric slot car track, and I don’t seem to be able to get into the EV groove 40 years on.
Part of my issue is that much of the EV hype focuses on performance over utilitarianism. As I raced around my Scalextric set in the 1970s, I’d sometimes be distracted by a familiar early-morning clinking of glass outside the house. In the UK, we had electric milk floats as early as the late 1940s which delivered the white stuff and other produce door-to-door each morning. Think about that for a second – 80 years ago, we had a primitive form of sustainable, electric-powered Uber Eats. Silicon Valley would kill for that business model, right?
80 years ago, we had a primitive form of sustainable, electric-powered Uber Eats. Silicon Valley would kill for that business model
Milk floats were big, ugly, slow beasts with simple stab-and-steer controls. They were built for function over performance, and I can’t help thinking modern EV upstarts have missed the point by over-complicating matters.
My broader issue with EVs is a more rounded view on planetary impact. Much of the carbon cost of a new vehicle is in its original manufacture, and I’m not 100 percent confident that we yet know how to dispose of batteries safely, or manufacture them at scale given the scarce resources involved. I can’t help thinking that it’s all a little Betamax.
My remaining friends and colleagues give me a hard time for running a small fleet of old German cars (aged eight, 27 and 40) which burn petrol and diesel. But I’m at rest with my choice as between them, they travel less than 7000 miles a year, and collectively they’d already covered 300,000 miles before I owned them. Plus, they’re good for at least another 100,000 miles in the next decade. As reliable as certain German software solutions, some might say.
The ‘walking tech’
Unfortunately, the embedded manufacturing carbon cost gets lost in the hype of flashy new EVs, as consumers yearn for the latest car with the latest cool tech. But it isn’t just technology that’s needed to save the planet – it’s moderation. Stop doing stuff that uses energy; instead, cut the miles and cut down on the tech-dependency.
French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul predicted our pending overreliance on technology in the early 1960s, saying: “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.”
Ellul posited that a proportion of the population walking amongst us are “The Diverted”. These folk are entertained and distracted by technology and find little time for independent rational thought. As technology evolves, “The Diverted” will become increasingly intertwined with technology and will ￼lose their humanness.
Those of you with aging German software can find ways to move the needle on your sustainability
In 1964, well before social media ruined society, Ellul spotted that we’d become slaves to technology, and that we’d try to combat our overdependence and addiction to technology with yet more technology. A modern-day example of this is screen time monitoring on smartphones – tech designed to curb the use of tech.
ERP’s role in sustainability
For businesses, the use of coal and natural gas to provide heat and electricity for production and transport is unavoidable. Maybe some of the sustainability answer is in technology to monitor and optimize, but maybe, too, a big part of the answer is looking away from technology and focusing on how we more viscerally measure and moderate the energy that we use.
At our consultancy, we’ve noticed in recent years that the subject of sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG) has shifted from ￼a mere pinprick during our exec interviews into a deep seam of concern. Somebody senior is getting the “sustainability monkey” on their back and is haranguing CxO colleagues to do their bit. Where it happens, this is a good thing. ESG as part of strategy, and strategic deployment of ESG down into business functions, should be applauded.
But hit up the CIO and speak to most technologists about sustainability in IT and they default to the same lame diatribe on using green energy to power servers (or cloud computing), which totally misses the point.
Let’s not forget that all businesses run business processes, and most business processes run on ERP. So, if you want to influence how your business processes produce and consume carbon, ERP has a significant part to play – whether that’s making processes more efficient, influencing ESG supplier selection, measuring carbon output, optimizing delivery loads etc. There’s a lot to go at.
Sure, ERP vendors are making a start. SAP has launched SAP Cloud for Sustainable Enterprises, Oracle’s Fusion Cloud tools enable sustainable practices, Infor has integrations like Made2Flow for PLM in the fashion industry and IFS provides tools like their Cloud Sustainability hub.
Don’t double down on tech
But, taking heed of Ellul’s foresight of “The Diverted”, is more technology really the answer?
In early 2022, we conducted a research project at Resulting with around 100 SAP customers, canvassing their views on ERP’s role in sustainability. The large majority of respondents claimed that sustainability is important both to themselves and their employer. But close to half (46 percent) of businesses didn’t even have a carbon reduction plan, and 34 percent said that sustainability is not an important consideration in IT decision making.
In a previous ERP research project, held in 2021 with 450 respondents, we discovered that 70 percent of ERP customers don’t have a definitive, up-to-date list of business processes.
The sustainability research took this finding a step further, asking whether businesses had defined which business processes impact their carbon footprint, and whether KPIs had been established to measure this.
This time around 48 percent hadn’t documented their business processes or how they impact carbon footprint. Of the remaining 52 percent, just 18 percent had KPIs with targets to measure the carbon footprint of their business processes.
There was more positive news in the intent. Only seven percent of respondents felt that ERP didn’t have a role to play in driving sustainability, with the rest falling into four broadly equal camps, as below.
How can ERP influence sustainability within your organization?
- Informing decision makers to drive more sustainable ways of working (19 percent)
- Measuring the sustainability impacts of our business processes (22 percent)
- Enhancing data so that sustainability impacts can be better understood (23 percent)
- Optimizing business processes to be more sustainable (29 percent)
My plea to you is: don’t become one of “The Diverted”. Don’t jump straight to the latest technology in your quest for being more sustainable. First, get a rounded understanding of the business processes across your organization. Next, categorize them through the lens of how they impact the environment. Think really hard about waste and opportunities to moderate your consumption. Work out how you might measure the things that lead to overconsumption, such as excess transport, energy usage, rework, over-production and waiting.
Then, think about how your existing ERP solution can be improved and adapted to support a shift in consumption. What can you do with your ERP today?
If there’s still another 100,000 miles left in my aging German cars, I’m sure those of you with aging German software can find ways to move the needle on your sustainability if you honestly think it’s important enough.
I’m not sure the planet can wait for another five year global ERP transformation.