5 Lessons on Data and Sustainability

By Salvador Núñez

During this era of unprecedented growth, sustainability has emerged as one of the most pressing problems we must now face. From disruptive startups to large established corporations, data can have a big role in driving sustainability. Here are 5 lessons that I’ve learned that can help organizations use data to become more sustainable, efficient, and productive.

1. Reframe the measured objective

Sustainability brings a unique set of challenges to a business by prioritizing long-term value over short-term profits. Too often, sustainability is modeled as a constraint rather than an objective that measures prosperity. If an organization is able to prioritize sustainability, management should change the data it collects, measures, and reports.

2. Boldly anticipate opportunity and iterate quickly

Innovative business models may be needed to create new markets and pursue new business opportunities. The advantages that come with being first-to-market can outweigh the risk of failure and many organizations take leaps of faith before calibrating a solution. Using data to anticipate opportunity and iterate quickly can transform these leaps of faith into calculated risks. Seizing sustainable business opportunities, in particular, can depend on influencing and anticipating changes to policy and consumer behavior. For example, at the beginning of the Obama Administration, cap-and-trade seemed like a ripe opportunity for the taking. As a result, C3 Energy began as an emissions management company, which then pivoted to focus on smart-grid applications, and currently provides an Artificial Intelligence & Internet of Things software platform known as C3 IOT.

3. Develop data stewardship before data science

Regardless of whether a business has sustainability goals, today’s business growth increasingly depends on sustainable data growth. On the one hand, the go-to-market strategy and the cash flow for a business may require the plane to be built while it’s flying. On the other, short-sighted system design and data management can prove costly and prevent the business from scaling later. Successfully informing business operations requires agile and farsighted collaboration between IT, data, and business professionals. In fact, many organizations may benefit more from better data stewardship than from cutting-edge data science. Management can help foster a sustainable data culture by measuring data quality, proactively handling exceptions in the data pipeline, incentivizing key stewards across the organization, and measuring long-term improvements in organizational behavior and data governance.

4. Nurture and empower data scientists with soft skills

Although there is a huge demand for data scientists, data insights do not drive value on their own. Actions do. Delivering results requires more than mastering machine learning algorithms and NoSQL frameworks. In fact, tech employers say soft skills are top hiring factors for data analytics jobs.

The most impactful data scientists bridge the gap between opaque statistical models and actionable business insights, work across teams to implement changes within the organization, and care deeply about the outcomes. Motivating data scientists to push the business in following through with their insights all the way to implementation can transform them into a force multiplier. With data science being such a new field, organizations can empower young talent by leveraging their longing for passion, authenticity, and purpose. Sustainable businesses can leverage their mission-oriented culture, for example, to motivate data scientists to take their data insights to the next level.

5. Shape consumer behavior through personalized data insights and behavioral science

Sustainability can often involve deep changes in human behavior. Beyond managing organizational behavior, it is critical to guide sustainable consumer behavior as well. Online advertising has long used personalized data insights and behavioral science techniques to shape consumer behavior. Its success has been largely driven by the ability to use data to present highly relevant and personalized content. A study from Venture Beat, for example, shows that email personalization has 2.5 times higher click-through rates (CTR) than static emails. These data also inform when and how to apply the psychology of persuasion to make consumers more likely to buy your product. How many of us buy that last ticket on kayak or last item on amazon because we were nudged by the illusion of scarcity?

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