As technology organizations step up their sustainability initiatives, there is a strong tendency across the industry to focus primarily on the “green” dimension: reducing carbon footprints, digital- and cloud-first initiatives and optimizing consumption at data centers and other locations. It is an understandable reaction. IT (information technology) is one of the highest consumers of energy in any enterprise and should therefore be a leader in finding a solution.
But this narrow definition of sustainability — as admirable as its end goals are — leaves out critical questions of economic viability and social equity. If the information technology industry is to truly sustain itself, in addition to understanding its impact on the planet, it must also wrestle with questions about the long-term viability of its workforce, as well as equitable access to the benefits of technology.
What does that mean in practical terms for IT organizations? Let us take a closer look at each of these dimensions:
Promoting economic sustainability
For IT to be economically sustainable, it must have a sustainable knowledge workforce. With development cycles shortening, innovation accelerating and technology advancing at record pace, that will require more than just bringing in new talent. Organizations also need to dedicate themselves to constantly upskilling their existing talent and investing in workforce development programs. Increasingly, companies' ability to sustain competitiveness will rely on how well they “upskill,” and how efficiently they can transition employees to new, critical roles, as opposed to “buying” knowledge from the open market.
At the same time, the industry must take steps to manage and minimize IT complexity. This will require it to do more than blindly adopt the architectural trends and technologies promoted by the industry pundits, and instead select architectures and technologies that are adequate to solve the business challenges at hand while not raising levels of technical complexity. In practical terms, organizations need to be more open to low-code solutions, SaaS solutions and development approaches that open the doors to more people to enter the IT workforce. The industry also needs to take steps to develop expertise by promoting mentor-apprentice models and closely-knit agile squads.
Supporting social sustainability
Meeting the sustainability challenge will also require organizations to redouble their efforts in promoting digital equity, developing technology skills in the next generation, and making it clear that technology is for everyone. From a skills development standpoint, this might include high school mentoring programs, hosting hackathons and other events that allow teenagers to get exposed to IT careers at an early date, or funding P-tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools) programs that allow students to earn a high school diploma alongside an associate degree, gaining work experience along the way.
More broadly, the IT industry would be well-served to stop thinking about the current hiring market as a “war for talent.” For years, technology companies have drawn artificial boundaries and barriers for entry, such as needing an undergraduate STEM education or demanding a minimum of three to four years of IT experience. If tech firms are now staring down a labor abundance problem, it is partly one of their own making. The technology industry has struggled with a diversity bias for years, with a dominance of men in the workforce and an overall lack of women and people of color.
To move beyond this bias, the industry needs to take concrete steps to promote an inclusive workforce by leaning into both gender diversity and neurodiversity. By searching out new sources of talent — whether by hiring veterans returning from duty, seeking candidates at historically black colleges and universities or opening pathways to graduates of two-year colleges — IT companies can expand their pipeline of candidates, open pathways to new communities and make their workforces more sustainable over the long run.
In addition to building a more inclusive workforce, steps such as building solutions with alternative interfaces — such as with voice and gestures — and eliminating biases in algorithms and data, are steps in the right directions. So, too, are an increase in the use of remote and hybrid working models can have a profound impact on lowering the barriers of entry to IT.
Only by bringing together all three dimensions of sustainability — environmental, economic, and social — can IT organizations achieve their long-term goals. Looking at IT sustainability through the lens of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing carbon footprints is critical, but it will not help address the growing gap between digital haves and have nots or give companies the ability to build the kind of flexible workforces they will need to continue to innovate.
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