Why sustainability isn’t the next digital transformation

Like a lot of people, I’ve had a great deal of time over various periods of lockdown and quarantine to listen to podcasts. One of my personal favourites has been Scriptnotes—a show that covers the inside secrets of Hollywood and the screenwriting profession. On a recent episode, the show’s hosts—both seasoned industry veterans—were discussing the fact that, if you want to sell a script, the most effective thing you can do is compare it to films that have already been enormously successful; you must convince a studio executive that your spy thriller is the next Mission Impossible, or that your superhero film is going to be the next Avengers.

Consultants, much like movie producers, are often guilty of trying to chase that “next big thing”. That’s why, in recent years, there’s been so much focus within the industry on trying to find the “next digital transformation”—the consulting market that could come to define the 2020s in the way that the rapid growth of the digital transformation market defined the 2010s. Lately, many of the industry’s leaders have started to wonder whether sustainability could be that market. After all, ESG-related concerns—particularly those to do with climate change and energy transition—have already started to have a noticeable impact on the agendas of C-level stakeholders.

There’s certainly some value in making comparisons between the digital transformation agenda and the sustainability agenda—indeed, we ourselves published a white paper last year that explored some of the parallels between the two. However, this way of thinking—be it in the world of filmmaking or consulting—does have its limits.

The problem with framing sustainability as the “new digital transformation” is that it sets up a false dichotomy between the two. It positions the sustainability agenda as a new trend that will bring with it its own unique set of client needs, independent of what went before. The truth, however, is that there is far more continuity than discontinuity between the sustainability agenda and the digital transformation agenda. The desire to build a more sustainable organisation is now, for many businesses, a core motivating factor that drives their investment in digital transformation; conversely, those organisations that have invested the most in digital transformation now find themselves in a position to set themselves more ambitious ESG targets. And over the coming years, we expect these two agendas to converge even further. In fact, we may eventually reach a point where, instead of treating digital transformation and sustainability as two separate consulting markets, we ought to start seeing them as two different ways of framing the same underlying set of client needs.

The field of data and analytics provides one of the best examples of this sort of convergence. In our recent report on “Digital, Transformed?”, we asked clients to describe the types of benefits they wanted to get out of their organisation’s investment in digital transformation. Access to more powerful datasets was cited more frequently than any other type of benefit; clearly, clients are well aware of the way that digitising key processes within their organisation can dramatically increase the volume of data they have access to and, consequently, the ability of their insights function to help them make more intelligent decisions.

How does this relate to sustainability consulting? Well, our previous research into that market has suggested that access to better data is the single most significant barrier preventing clients from buying more sustainability services. Clients want to take more aggressive action on the ESG front—but they’re prevented from doing so by their inability to accurately measure and track their organisation’s carbon footprint or its exposure to climate risk. It follows, therefore, that as clients develop more powerful data and analytics functions, a by-product of that will be greater appetite for sustainability services.

That’s why it’s vital that consultants learn to stop thinking of sustainability and digital transformation as independent markets, and start acknowledging the symbiotic relationship between the two. In practice, that means three things. First, firms ought to ensure that their digital experts have a strong baseline level of sustainability knowledge, even if it’s not an area they’ve explicitly worked in before. Second, firms ought to embed principles of sustainability into the design of the digital transformation programmes they deliver, ensuring that those programmes are going to further the client’s sustainability objectives. And lastly, firms should be proactive about looking for cross-sell opportunities—i.e., cases where the digital work they’ve delivered for a client has created opportunities for that client to launch new sustainability initiatives.

While the market for sustainability services will almost certainly grow considerably over the coming years, it won’t be the “next big thing” that comes along and usurps the place of digital transformation. Rather, the evidence suggests that the fortunes of the two markets will be inextricably bound up with one another—and that the boundaries between them will start to become increasingly porous. The firms that will be most successful within both of these spaces will be the ones that fully understand this relationship, and which know how to embed sustainability work into the context of larger digital programmes.