Data Culture and Infrastructure in the Fight Against Climate Change


By Mathias Golombek, CTO and Green Team Ambassador, Exasol

On the opening day of COP26, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) held a press conference that examined major impacts on the climate in 2021. Combining reports from multiple United Nations agencies along with its own research, to paint a picture of the health of the planet.

The results were not encouraging. From the first rain on record falling on the Greenland ice sheet, to the record-breaking 54.4°C heatwave in California, the WMO suggested we’re far short of the targets set out in the Paris Agreement back in 2015. To put it in very simple terms, the planet is hurting.

While we all try to do our part individually, businesses of every type hold a far greater responsibility. Fossil fuel companies might be at the top of the list – with over 70% of CO2 emissions being produced by just 100 organisations – but agricultural emissions alone could make it impossible to limit warming to the 1.5C goal of the Paris agreement, for example.

It’s incumbent upon every organisation, therefore, to be able to quantify the damage that they’re inflicting on the environment. If they’re going to be able to action Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) programmes, or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, they have to understand the lay of the land.

The state of play

That understanding, in the modern day, is hugely reliant on both the quality and quantity of data. Decision-makers must have the facts to hand if they’re to enact meaningful change.

Recent research we’ve conducted at Exasol, however, paints a worrying picture here. Barely a fifth of decision-makers responsible for ESG or CSR initiatives – just 22% – are using all the data available to them to inform their climate change plans.

However, there is a recognition for the importance of data in these organisations. More than half (54%) of those surveyed believe that their business won’t exist in ten years if they don’t act on climate change programmes, while a healthy 81% think that their decision-making process would be better with access to data-driven insights.

But despite this, almost half (49%) have no internal directive to follow a data-led approach to ESG, CSR, or Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). Without the data they need, and without the culture internally to ensure that they can access it, many are flying half-blind when it comes to delivering on what may be the most important KPI of the 21st century.

So: how do businesses protect both themselves and the planet in this environment? What needs to change?

Data champions

For some businesses, the highest priority is developing a culture where the importance of data is recognised. 

For many who are unfamiliar with data, translating the numbers into something meaningful seems like a cold exercise. Percentages and graphs aren’t an emotive prospect. Those who see the importance of data, however, need to be able to change that perspective, turning data from plots and numbers into the compelling narratives that can bring about change.

Organisations therefore need some sort of champion for data internally, advocating for its use and educating those around them as to how significant and moving it can be.

One such figure is the Chief Data Officer. Gartner research has suggested that the CDO is the business-critical figure in 75% of large organisations, in part due to their ability to turn data into understandable and accessible insights. Their work here trickles down – if they’re able to use data to convince their C-Suite colleagues of business priorities and performance, the importance of that data will trickle down to their immediate subordinates, and in turn permeate the company over time.

Other organisations will opt for a collective, a ‘Centre of Data Excellence’ that operates as a cross-departmental taskforce. The group will prioritise the standardisation of data, using it to quantify individual and group performance, and help to educate those around them on its importance. In this manner, data education comes from the middle and ripples out.

While these approaches are different, the objective is the same: demonstrate that datapoints can create something emotive that quantifies how a business is functioning.

Tools of the trade

Of course, advocacy is one half of the coin. If the data a business is collecting isn’t up to scratch, it can be difficult to convince others of its importance.

The pandemic has proven to be one of the most powerful catalysts for digital transformation since the term came into our lexicon. Organisations have to adopt technologies extremely quickly in order to continue to do business, with those that failed to do so having to close – or fold entirely.

That’s led to a cacophony of different technologies collecting different types of data, doubling up on functionalities for no good reason, and generally muddying the waters when it comes to data hygiene. There’s no guarantee that they can communicate with each other, or that the data they produce can even be sent to the same place.

As a result, a data infrastructure that allows you to de-silo your data – get it all into the same place – and keep it up to date is fundamental to success here. For most organisations, that’s going to demand a review of the systems you use and streamlining that set of tools into something agile and fit for purpose.

For some – those with a more robust data culture, and greater data literacy – it might mean that they turn to hyperautomation. This process, simulating each system and process in an organisation in terms of its data output in order to quantify and improve its performance, is complex and time-consuming. But it also offers the most comprehensive and accurate datasets that businesses can have when it comes to introspection and self-improvement.

Regardless, these two elements are cyclical. Businesses need to have the tools to get high quality data, and the culture to respect the resulting insights and use them to inform strategy, if they’re going to succeed in ESG and CSR endeavours.

About the Author

Mathias Golombek has been with Exasol since 2004. He initially was Head of Research & Development. In 2014, he was appointed as member of the Executive Board and Chief Technology Officer. Mathias currently holds responsibility for the global Product Management, Research and Development (R&D) and Technical Customer Support functions.


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