Distance no object

15th September 2011


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IEMA

Robert Wiseman Dairies is piloting software to cut down on face-to-face meetings, saving money and reducing emissions. Paul Suff reports

Environment champions working at Robert Wiseman Dairies’ 22 UK sites meet regularly to exchange ideas, share progress and discuss problems with environmental issues at their sites. The location of those meeting has changed over the past year, however. Rather than rotate the meetings around the country – with sites as far apart as Glasgow and Droitwich, in Worcestershire – collaborative software now allows them to work together without leaving their own offices, making significant environmental and financial savings.

Getting together

One of Wiseman’s key environmental targets, announced last year as part of the firm’s five-year sustainability strategy, is to reduce fuel consumption across the business by 15% by 2015 – based on the ratio of fuel litres per tonne of liquid input (milk). Much of the improvement will come from maximising the fuel economy and emissions savings from the company’s fleet of lorries through good driving and efficient route planning, as well as using the most efficient vehicles.

Reducing company car mileage will also contribute, even though such journeys account for only 2% of Wiseman’s transport emissions. But whereas the use of HGVs is an inescapable feature of the business operations, with milk collected from farms on a daily basis and transported by lorry to dairies and then to retailers, a significant proportion of company car travel is unnecessary.

“We found that around half the business miles travelled in company cars were not strictly necessary,” says Debbie Rusk, environment manager at Robert Wiseman Dairies in Glasgow. “So, if we could find a way of collaborating without making car journeys we’d be able to significantly reduce company car use, which will help meet our 2015 fuel target.”

Internal analysis reveals that a two-hour meeting involving all 22 environment champions at the firm’s head office could produce 1,700kg of CO2 emissions and cost £4,300 in travel costs and employees’ time (see a real example in the panel below). A collaborative network therefore makes both environmental and financial sense.

“Now people are used to collaborating online, they can see the benefits and how much more convenient it is than sitting in their cars for hours,” says Rusk. She also adds that such arrangements can provide even larger gains, for example when there are traffic problems, which can add enormously to the length of a journey and significantly increase emissions.

Networking

David Leitch, network architect at Wiseman, says that the firm looked at several web-based systems before deciding to pilot a collaborative desktop system called Appshare, which was developed at the University of Strathclyde. “The problem with collaboration tools, like video conferencing, is that they require substantial investment in new bandwidth to make them work well enough to support a number of users, while some desktop collaboration systems will work OK if there are only a small number of users at any one time. We experimented with a couple of collaboration systems, but these only allowed two or three users on before our network collapsed under the strain.”

That’s because collaboration systems tend to hog bandwidth, particularly as the number of participants rises, potentially disrupting other business network technologies, such as email, enterprise resource planning and customer service management systems.

Appshare, however, can accommodate several hundred users in one or more meetings at the same time. “Appshare is scalable in the sense that lots of people can use it without any network problems and without the need for any additional bandwidth,” says Leitch.

According to CEO Stephen Behan, the software will cost a company the size of Wisemans around £150,000 a year to roll out to all staff, whereas alternative collaborative systems cost the same but also require a £1 million-plus investment in additional bandwidth. “From a practical perspective Appshare works like any other collaboration tool, but from a technical perspective it is entirely different. Its scalable architecture means that it doesn’t hammer the network,” explains Behan.

The system is secure as it is deployed in the corporate network, rather than being linked via the internet to a third-party server. Appshare also integrates with other applications. Leitch warns that this is crucial. “I tested it to make sure it wouldn’t cause any adverse effects on our other voice and data applications,” he says.

Web-based collaboration tools, such as Appshare, enable users who have downloaded the software and who are invited to a meeting to share a desktop.

Rusk outlines the typical agenda for the meetings of environment champions to illustrate how she and her colleagues use the system: “Each of us gives a 10 to 15 minute Powerpoint presentation on the challenges and highlights at our site over the previous three months. Then we go through our ‘action log’, which details what we should have done since our previous meeting.

“We also look at our ‘utility ratios’, which itemise our electricity and water use and waste arisings, for example. And we highlight any new legislation that everyone needs to be aware of. Then it is on to any other business. [Using the software] is like letting your colleagues look over your shoulder while you talk them through a slide or document.”

All for one

All the environment champions at Robert Wiseman Dairies have now been trained to teach others how to use Appshare, and the company plans to roll the system out across the group. Rusk advises that senior management support is crucial to get people to alter their existing behaviour.

“Adopting a technology that changes the way people work is no trivial challenge; it’s not enough that the technology works, there has to be strong management determination to drive the use of the technology throughout the business.

“We found AppShare easy to use, but the bigger challenge has been to encourage our colleagues to abandon their cars and stay in the office. This kind of change demands the support of the senior management if expectations of success are to be realised.”

So with transport accounting for about 25% of UK carbon emissions (higher than in 1990), and with commuter and business travel constituting nearly 40% of all miles driven by car, working together online wherever possible rather than getting together face to face can be a cost-effective way of significantly reducing business emissions.

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