From the Field: Green Information Management

On first glance, it wouldn't seem as if "information management" and "sustainability" really go together. The two are such vast fields that suffer from the same issue of a lack of definition that trying to make the two go together in any way, shape, or form would seem hopeless.

Information management and environmental sustainability are both heavily reliant on the idea of a lifecycle, that the objects we deal with have a birth and a death, and that the life in between must somehow be managed, that the end result must be something that contributes back to society. Though the products we deal with are of substantially different qualities -- environmental sustainability tends to deal in the physical, whereas information is necessarily ephemeral -- the end goal is the same. The challenge we face: how do we combine them?

Take, for example, C. W. Choo's six-stage model of the information management process: information needs identification, information acquisition, information organization and storage, the development of information products and services, information distribution, and information use. This process is not an end-to-end process -- it feeds in upon itself, since at any stage, an individual might choose to return to an earlier stage to obtain more information or to fine-tune their original request.

There are important instances of environmental sustainability being adopted in IT generally, like HP's Renew and Asset Recovery Services, an effort to reclaim their products from the landfill. By recycling customer returns, canceled orders, trade-ins, leased equipment, and other sources into refurbished and resold equipment, HP has drastically reduced the amount of waste they generate as part of the product lifecycle.

As organizations realize the economic, ethical, and environmental impetuses towards adopting an environmentally sustainable approach to business, they must also ensure that, like any business, they respond appropriately to the available information while also releasing as much information as possible about their efforts. This is where information management can play a vital role.

Unfortunately, right now information management lacks any particular recognition of a completely separate set of lifecycle tools and models that are inherent in the study of environmental sustainability. As information managers, particularly in times where environmental sustainability is becoming a key factor in business development and economics, we have to work to introduce sustainability considerations into our own processes and lifecycles.

Information management is perhaps best envisioned as a driver for environmental sustainability, since we introduce information in a contextual, high-quality, relevant form into our workspaces. As information managers, one thing is certain: we cannot treat environmental sustainability as a separate effort. With goals that very neatly align (even if the processes and systematic definitions don't), we have a lot to potentially add to how our organizations approach and understand environmental sustainability and its effects. We have the tools to better organizational understanding of what environmental sustainability is and why it is important.

We also have the responsibility to use those tools. When the need for this information is immediate we have no choice but to respond with all the abilities at our disposal.

If we take the authors of Cradle to Cradle at their word, the central premise of environmental sustainability and how we must implement it is this simple equation: waste equals food. This construct offers one very powerful idea: that which is introduced into an environmental system must be able to be reintroduced into that same environmental system once it has outlived its usefulness. Outputs of one process must act as inputs into another, and there must be no waste. Sound familiar?

Peter Ellis works at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Richland, Washington. He co-authored, with faculty member Kevin Desouza, the article "On Information Management, Environmental Sustainability, and Cradle to Cradle Mentalities," in Business Information Review, 26 (4), 2009, 257-264.