Data, dashboards and detours

The people charged with driving down emissions and improving energy efficiency are often specialists whose expertise lies in engineering, systems and measurements. The certainties of technical solutions allow them to calculate the return on investments. When the numbers are right, they can win support to upgrade equipment, add computing power and improve controls.

When they need to get other people to do things, however, the way forward can be less than obvious. The normal 'carrots and sticks' - incentives, recognition, embarrassment or penalties - may help drive change, but these kinds of corporate coercion can also disempower people, reducing motivation, creativity and commitment.

Their first step is often to give staff data and targets - with the expectation of improvements in response. But knowing the kilowatt hours used this month, compared to last, doesn't necessarily help operators to know what to do. Being faced with an emissions target for 2015 just warns them that there might be trouble ahead. More tasks and targets can even engender resentment and a reluctance to join in.

Their next step is often to create a dashboard so that everyone knows, from the comfort of their own desktop, just how they are doing on energy use and emissions since last year, last week or yesterday. If employees are resting their foot on the gas pedal they may ease off for a moment but, unless they see a change right there and then, it's likely that their foot will soon be easing down again.

To actually achieve a change in 'behaviour' requires something else: emotional engagement and self-motivation. A chance for people to find their own impulse and act on it - that's the key that most people need to open up the doors of change.

When I first became a 'change agent', I spent a morning with Charles Handy. He drew a horseshoe and told stories about how sometimes the best way from A to B is to start by going in an altogether different direction.

To help a workforce get to grips with the numbers and take action, sometimes it's best to head off into the less certain worlds of personal interests, aspirations and emotions. Our visuals can be useful for this. While being true to the data, they can inspire, amaze, provoke, surprise and even shock. In the sudden search for answers, the numbers become charged with meaning. Those very same people might even ask for dashboards and data - so they too can measure progress towards a better vision.