Speaking the Language of Business Value

Let’s start with the basics: I don’t speak Swedish. So when I was in Sweden recently, attending the World Water Week Conference, I noticed something about language that provides an interesting parallel to my day job of talking about sustainability. Every time I engaged a local in conversation, it started something like this:

Swedish Local: “Hey”

John: “Hey” (This is promising! They use a casual English greeting, so they must speak English.)

Swedish Local: Something in Swedish that I didn’t understand AT ALL…

Lost in translation

So what just happened with these miscommunications? Well, apparently, “hey” is the common greeting in Swedish, much as it is in English. I thought we were about to have a nice conversation in English, but what started with a hopeful beginning turned into a bit of a train wreck. Luckily, most Swedish natives also speak fantastic English, so we were able to find common ground soon enough.

So what does this have to do with sustainability? It shows the importance of communicating in a common language when talking about how sustainability integrates with business. AT&T recently worked with GreenBiz on a survey about how technology purchases are influenced by sustainability benefits, and it appears that sustainability professionals aren’t successfully engaging with their business unit counterparts because they’re speaking the wrong language.

The language of business

Much like my experience with “hey,” sustainability teams think they’re talking in a common tongue when meeting with their business units, only to find out that the language of environmental benefits sounds a little like a Muppet speaking so-called “Swedish.” Sustainability professionals and business units may both speak English, but the common language to engage in sustainability conversations is business.

How do we integrate sustainability and environmental benefits into business decisions? Bust out the MBA books and start talking about ROI and efficiency. Meet the operational decision-makers where they live and define benefits that are meaningful to them. And where it makes sense, quantify the environmental or social benefits to seal the deal. It generates sustainability-related benefits, but does so by using the terms that resonate with business and IT decision-makers.

To learn more about avoiding those “hey” moments when integrating sustainability into IT purchase decisions, check out the overview of the Greenbiz survey below.

What is the common language of decision-making at your organization? How do you translate the benefits of sustainability into the universal language of business?


John Schulz Sustainability Operations Director AT&T About John