Sustainability Lessons From India: Q&A With Environmental Consultant Trudy Heller

An American’s first impressions of India often include images of alternate approaches to trash management, intermittent electrical power supplies and issues of environmental sustainability.

In this interview with Trudy Heller, those approaches are seen from the perspective of Heller’s work designing products for environmental sustainability and providing training to executives in environmental management.

Heller is the president of Executive Education for the Environment, based in Swarthmore, Pa. She recently visited India to assist in setting up an environmental management training program at the new Indian Institute of Management in Shillong, the capital of the state of Meghalaya, Northeast India.

E-Commerce Times: What about your recent trip to India stays in your heart the most?

Trudy Heller:

In Shillong, I would leave the guest house each morning and walk out into a scene from a sustainable economy. In the driveway and walkways, four or five women were employed sweeping up debris that had fallen from the trees during the previous night’s rain. Each woman worked with a biodegradable sweeper made of broom grass, a locally grown agricultural product.

This tableau of a sustainable economy was striking to my Western senses. The system provided employment, used biodegradable, locally sourced products, and produced an excellent result — cleared walkways and driveways — without noise or air pollution disturbing the academic community.

At home in the United States, the problem of removing debris from driveways and walkways would be managed with an entirely different solution. A single worker equipped with a gasoline-powered tool would be hired to blow the debris off the pavement.

This solution would disturb the community with noise and air pollution, burn fossil fuel, emit carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — and provide employment for a single individual. With sustainability as the standard, it is easy to see which is the more “advanced” solution.

ECT: How are you using the word, “sustainability”?

Heller:

In his new book, Sustainability by Design, John Ehrenfeld suggests a definition for sustainability as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.” Sustainability is, by this definition, a vision and a mindset. In my trip to India, sustainability became a standard against which I measured practices that were new to me.

Rather than seeing the West as the standard of environmentally sustainable practices and India as an emerging economy that is trying to catch up, I saw opportunities for both East and West to learn from each other.

ECT: What were your observations of Indian senior managers regarding your environmental stewardship standard?

Heller:

I met power company executives who were building hydropower stations at the same time that India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Washington, D.C., negotiating an agreement for nuclear power. India needs electricity to support its information technology industry and to meet basic needs. Both hydro and nuclear technologies go directly to clean power that does not emit greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change.

These technologies avoid the traditional path of polluting first and cleaning up later, which has been the path followed in the United States and Europe. Compare this with China’s construction of a coal-fired power plant each week to 10 days, and it is easy to see which is the more “advanced” solution when environmental sustainability is the standard.

ECT: Did the executives see their companies in terms of the same sustainability standard that you talk about?

Heller:

Managers, naturally, get engrossed in the daily challenges of running their operations. They struggle with community relations, requirements of government bureaucracies, and materials and personnel management. It is easy to lose sight of the big picture under these pressures.

Managers need to see themselves as global citizens, as being on the right side of history, as contributors to a transformation to a sustainable society.

Understanding how new business models are being created, hearing about examples of new product designs that dematerialize — or use less stuff, of companies that are profiting by using business models enabled by information, and communications [technologies] that substitute services for products was inspiring and enlightening to them.

For example, a power company executive recounted the travails of his efforts to deal with local community resistance to his company’s plan to build a new hydropower plant. I challenged him to frame his project in terms of the need to reduce greenhouse gases.

“How many tons of carbon dioxide will you NOT emit, by building a hydropower plant instead of a coal fired plant?” I asked. Or how many tons of carbon would be emitted if a coal fired plant provided the same amount of electricity?

He was thrilled with this question and began to use his engineering skills to do the computation. But he also got the bigger point: India needs power. The choice is to either build thermal plants that will produce electricity AND emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, or to build clean power plants that will not add to the climate’s burden of carbon, to leapfrog over more polluting technologies.

ECT: What other aspects of life in India did you notice with your environmental stewardship approach?

Heller:

Trash. The average American produces four pounds of trash per day. In India, there was no trash can in my room. I would collect trash on a shelf of my desk, and hand it to the woman who came to clean my room.

I became acutely aware of each morsel of trash I created. There was no “away.” I could not just drop trash in a can and put it out of my mind.

This system was simplified by the absence of paper products that are abundant in the United States: paper cups, plastic lids, straws, tissues, paper plates, plastic spoons and forks, all manner of handouts and advertising fliers, brochures, schedules, announcements.

Instead, “real” plates and cups were washed and reused even when they were taken out of the dining hall and brought to me at the guest house. E-mail worked just fine, a single copy of a newspaper was shared, and communication was often person-to-person. Measured against a sustainability standard, it is easy to see which system is more advanced.

Adding to the mindfulness of trash creation was the sight of a plume of smoke spotted on one of my walks around the Indian Institute of Management’s Shillong campus. The sight and smell of burning trash increased my attempts to minimize waste. Like the principle of “extended producer responsibility,” witnessing the processing of the end of life of my trash kept the pressure on to use washable dishes and utensils, to minimize paper use, and to use other products long and well.

What became valuable were things that could be used intensely and that would endure a long time. Single or short use products that had to be tossed out and replaced became an anathema. I felt my environmental footprint shrinking.

Another experience with trash occurred when I arrived in India and realized that I had left two folders full of important papers on the airplane. I went to the British Airways lost luggage desk and waded into the crowd of people with lost luggage.

The airline clerk made a phone call but reported that the crew had not found the missing folders. I left my name and hotel address but wasn’t expecting to see those papers again. I gradually realized that most of what was in the folders was also in my laptop computer — voila, paperless!

ECT: What are your concluding thoughts about what the heads of Indian companies need to know about environmental sustainability?

Heller:

Indian managers need to see themselves as leaders of the global green economy. We in the West have a lot to learn from them. With economies around the world in recession, falling consumption in the so-called consumer economies, and an urgent need to delink economic development from environmental degradation, we need the wisdom of both Eastern and Western ways of managing.

I find hope in management approaches and consultancies that base their practice in Indian culture’s inclinations toward sustainable development. AllIndiaLive.org is one example.

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Implementation of a New CRM Should Be Easy

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When CRM implementations fail, it's often because the product and its setup process are too complicated, time-consuming, and difficult for users to buy in. (Image Credit: Zoho)

Did you know that a third of all CRM implementations fail? That’s the conclusion of research cited by the Harvard Business Review. The same study found that one of the main reasons CRM implementations fail is that they’re too complex and don’t have a clear focus.

This is hardly surprising. Many CRM applications are highly complex. Migrating data to a new CRM, and getting everyone to use that CRM, is an involved task at the best of times. And the way many CRMs are built, and the way they require users to interact with them, means that implementation really isn’t the best of times.

The Problem With Piecemeal

Many CRMs consist of different applications that have been bolted together through a process of mergers and acquisitions. This makes the initial implementation complicated. Technical and line-of-business staff are forced to interact with different elements of the system in different ways, which makes the learning curve steeper.

It can also lead to duplication of effort, and asking people to repeat time-consuming tasks is sure to cause frustration and put them off using the system. A CRM implementation relies on engaging with and convincing users, from the C-suite right down to the people on data entry.

The more difficult that process is, the less users are likely to complete it. And even if they do complete the initial data migration and set-up, if your users find the CRM complex, disjointed, and time consuming, they won’t keep it up to date. This is possibly the main reason why CRM implementations fail: users simply refuse to use the new platform. As a result, the data it contains soon becomes outdated and incomplete.

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The Salesforce Way

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If you are reading this, you know Salesforce at least superficially. If you know the company just a little bit better, you know it is over twenty years old and practically singlehandedly invented cloud computing.

Other companies that get a shout out for being early to the cloud include Amazon, but they built and maintained their instance of cloud for their private use. Amazon inspired companies like Salesforce. The rest is not history but current events.

Aside from the basics of cloud computing, Salesforce seems to have invented or reinvented much of today’s business environment and best practices. That’s not hyperbole — and it points to a potentially bright future for global business.

When Salesforce got started it was dogma that the corporation existed for the benefit of the shareholder, period. Part of twentieth century business history documents the push and pull between those who believed in shareholder supremacy and those who believed that customers, labor, partners, local communities — stakeholders — had skin in the game and also deserved love.

Defying Cost-Cutting Mentality

Beginning with a famous case Dodge v. Ford — the Dodge brothers were Ford shareholders — courts have generally sided with shareholders that excess cash should be returned to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. The idea survives to the present day with the unfortunate result that companies don’t adequately fund activities like research, development, employee training and the like.

In the post-war period accountants focused on tight financial controls and wrestled company management away from the inventors and engineers who made products and tried to perfect them.

Figures like Robert McNamara famously remade Ford in the image of the bean counters to the detriment of the “car guys,” their products, and ultimately their customers. McNamara’s proteges and descendants infiltrated American business and left us with what we have today: too many businesses run by bean counters focused on cutting costs.

In that environment Salesforce has bucked the tide and thrived.

Salesforce on Wall Street

When Salesforce championed the subscription model, Wall Street couldn’t initially wrap its head around it. The Street was highly skeptical of any business’s ability to make money charging by the week or the month. Big deals, the kind that pump up a balance sheet, weren’t plentiful and so subscriptions were suspect. That’s nothing compared to the quizzical looks Wall Street gave when discussing a category of software focused on the customer.

Salesforce was also very early to the party in reconsidering shareholder primacy. It seemed to them, as a CRM company that attending to other stakeholders just made sense. So, they attended to all parties, built software systems to assist in the effort and proselytized to the world about the importance of other stakeholders.

Another way Salesforce has been different has been in its approach to mergers and acquisitions. In a world where at least half of all mergers fail, the vast majority of Salesforce mergers succeed brilliantly. One metric to consider is how many companies want to be acquired by Salesforce. I do not recall the words “hostile takeover” and “Salesforce” ever being uttered in the same breath.

Today Salesforce’s mergers are easier than ever because of prior mergers such as MuleSoft (an integration tool) and the Salesforce platform upon which many acquired companies and candidates have built their products. Vlocity would be a good example.

My Two Bits

Salesforce’s success was not pre-ordained. It came in the era just after the bean counters devastated Hewlett Packard and Xerox, two powerhouses that invested heavily in research and development. Bean counters more or less decided that all that spending on new product development would better serve their plans for dividends and buybacks. Neither company retains its greatness from mid-century nor is it likely to regain it.

To me Oracle looks threatened in the same way. In order to keep corporate raiders at bay the company has repurchased billions worth of its stock and pays out hefty dividends to keep its stock bobbing like a cork on the sea of Wall Street.

I am happy to say that in my career as an analyst, the questions I have tried to answer dealt primarily with how and how well software worked, not about how much money a company made. That said, it’s hard to deny a feeling of I told you so when Salesforce announces earnings. According to its earnings announcement for its Q2, year over year revenues were up an astonishing 24.28% at $7.41 billion — easily beating Wall Street estimates, a regular occurrence.

The company with a radically different product strategy, and a business model that included all stakeholders, continues to do well and to teach those of us willing to learn how business can be done better in the twenty-first century. What’s next is anyone’s guess. Hopefully the bean counters will keep a respectful distance.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry analyst, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can't Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there. Email Denis.

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