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Sustainable practices from a paperless and politic CIO

Passionate about sustainable practices, Wellesley College's CIO gently pushes going paperless in an environment built on books.

Ravi Ravishanker is "fiercely paperless," as he puts it, and has been for 10 years. The CIO at Wellesley College requests papers and meeting notes be sent by email. Except for those books not available electronically, all of his reading is done on screens. He doesn't even take business cards from vendors. In his day-to-day interactions with employees and students at the elite women's college in Wellesley, Mass., however, Ravishanker promotes going paperless and other sustainable practices with a soft touch.

Ravi RavishankerRavi Ravishanker,
CIO, Wellesley College

"Given the sensitivity of the use of paper in academia, we look for opportunities," said Ravishanker, who became CIO and head of library services in 2010. "People tell us what they need paper for, and we recommend applications that can help get them out of the paper business."

Take, for example, Wellesley's decision last year to electronically distribute "board books," the collected documents sent to the college's 55 trustees and staff before every board meeting. For annual meetings, the contents can run to 100 pages or more. Rather than push a policy to go paperless, Ravishanker showed up at the president's cabinet meeting with his iPad conspicuously in hand for taking notes. Someone noticed and, soon enough, the electronic board book for iPads and laptops was launched. At last year's debut, IT staff stood by, ready to lend a hand. A few needed help, "but not many," recalled Ravishanker, who oversees an IT and library staff of 80.

"We need to be careful not to push too hard. For 100-plus years, people here have done academic business in a particular way," he said. "You don't want to be pushing technology for the sake of technology."

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Ravishanker is currently conferring with the chair of the economics department on the possibility of going paperless. Faculty want to be able to read the paperwork distributed for meetings, mark up documents and collaborate. Since Wellesley is a Google Apps for Education customer, IT has suggested the department use Google apps. A number of faculty members are already Dropbox customers, so IT will look for software compatible with that file-hosting service -- at least for documents that don't contain sensitive information. "We ask them to be very careful about the personal information being stored in any of these documents."

Planting seeds for green technology solutions

In his own domain -- IT operations and library services -- Ravishanker has a bit more latitude to implement sustainable practices. His staff is hard at work digitizing library holdings, including rare collections, so they can be accessed electronically. (On Valentine's Day, the library published a new digital collection of the Browning Love Letters held by Wellesley College's Special Collections.) The library subscribes to 450,000 ebooks, at last count.

Students and faculty avail themselves of the digitized material, but Ravishanker says there is no guarantee this saves paper. "I believe a fair amount is then printed and read on paper. We have informal surveys that people like the touch and feel," he said. (Nor is there any conclusive study that electronic reading is better environmentally than a printed book, he adds, "because you still need electricity to power the device.")

People tell us what they need paper for, and we recommend applications that can help get them out of the paper business.

Ravi Ravishanker,
CIO, Wellesley College

On the administration side of the college, IT can hardly keep up with the need for document imaging and automation. But there, too, he proceeds with caution, as with his initiative to automate invoices by scanning the paper bills and sending them directly to the ERP system. "It is a compelling story, but change is always hard. Therefore, we need to convey that these methods increase efficiency and help them."

Top-down support for sustainable practices

Critical to the success of any IT implementation of sustainable solutions, Ravishanker said, is a 2008 decision by Wellesley's board member and President, H. Kim Bottomly, to make sustainable practices part of the school's core mission. The college now has a sustainability director, Patrick Willoughby, with whom IT works closely.

Indeed, without that commitment from the top, CIOs will find it tough to play a big role in sustainability, according to Christopher Mines, analyst and research director at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. At companies where sustainability is a major initiative, Mines said the impetus almost always comes from the top -- the board of directors and the CEO.

"The CIO is not in a very strong position organizationally, structurally, nor from a skillset perspective to really take on a so-called 'energy czar' role," Mines said. Once the commitment is made, the IT organization has a significant role to play in enabling efficiency efforts.

Ravishanker agreed: "CIOs definitely cannot take charge. You are acting in the role of a consultant." He'd tell CIOs eager to take a bigger role in promoting sustainable practices to first establish trust. "The technique I use is basically to develop relationships first. You need to have people trusting you before you can propose any ideas," he said. "I am never in my office; I am out there talking to faculty, talking to administrative staff."

The aim is to generate buzz, seed ideas and wait for the requests to come back to him. "I don't need to take credit. I am just trying to make things happen."

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