Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

IT, Resource Productivity, Environmental Preservation, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Systems vs. Tools: A Framing Problem for Digital-Age Environmental Sustainability

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I’ve noticed that articles describing carbon management systems and other types of information systems applied by firms to improve environmental sustainability are often referred to as “tools.” Here’s an example from an article entitled “Energy, carbon management apps offer new twist on enterprise software“:

It is all about habit-changing activities. The tools are a facility to change the habits.

Here’s another example referring to the system developed by the EPA for greenhouse gas reporting:

Planning for Mandatory GHG Data Submissions Using the e-GGRT Tool

Referring to information systems as “tools” is problematic, as the above table from Steven Alter’s 2008 EJIS article makes clear. As Alter emphasizes:

The proposed definition of IS is a sociotechnical definition because it includes people both as system participants and as internal or external customers of the system. With both participants and customers clearly in view, the description or analysis of a system tends to include topics such as the skills, interests, incentives, and social relations of the people in the system. In contrast, IS definitions that focus on hardware and software [tools] do little to focus attention on sociotechnical issues and concerns.

Thinking about environmental information systems in terms of functional requirements, cost effectiveness, and intended uses misses critical aspects of systems. For example, systems evolve over time in conjunction with how they are used and may lead to unintended consequences. Framing IS as “tools” instead of systems has led to notorious failures in large IT projects.

Let’s call them what they are: information systems (or IS for short), or, editing the above article headline: “Planning for Mandatory GHG Data Submissions Using the e-GGRT System.”


Alter, S. 2008. Defining Information Systems as Work Systems: Implications for the IS Field. European Journal of Information Systems 17 448-469.

Author: nigelpm

Associate Professor of Information Systems, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan - Helping organizations to navigate digital transformation.

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