The Environmental Management Information System (EMIS)
or
The Intelligent Environmental Management System

By Margery Moore and Daniel Bordeleau
October 2001

Ms. Moore is a Senior Associate with ICF Consulting Inc., providing support to regulatory agencies and to clients in the private sector, focused on the use of information technology to facilitate communication, development, analysis and practice of environmental objectives, values, and strategies for improved compliance, beyond-compliance or overall business performance purposes.

Introduction

Substantial pressures are placed on organizations today to consider the preservation of the environment as one of their primary business strategies. Contributing factors include globalization of the marketplace, non-profit organizations, local legislation and global accords, a burgeoning green supply-chain, and a well-educated public, to name a few. Businesses, therfore, need to consider new approaches for implementation of environmental management systems if they wish to reduce manage these pressures effectively.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of a new type of environmental management system (EMS), based on the international family of standards, ISO 14000. More than 18,000 sites around the globe were certified at the end of 2000 to ISO 14001, the only certifiable standard in the family. The amount of information this type of EMS must manage is quite vast. And unfortunately, managing such a system manually proves to be inefficient and creates the potential effect of substantially limiting the performance of the EMS. In fact, such a system may perhaps never meet the ever-growing information demands of environmental managers if managed manually.

In a world heavily focused on technology, environmental professionals must now turn their focus to computerized solutions that enable them to attain their information intensive management objectives. The EMIS (Environmental Management Informational or Intelligent System) therefore becomes a vital tool in a forward thinking environmental manager´s toolkit.

An environmental management information systems (EMIS) is an important component of environmental management that can assist both environmental and non-environmental managers fulfill their daily tasks. EMISs have been broadly defined as computer-based technologies that support environmental management systems. Tasks that EMISs support include tracking activities, tracking waste, monitoring emissions, scheduling tasks, coordinating permits and documentation, managing MSDSs, conducting cost/benefit analysis, and choosing alternative materials, to name a few. Many computer-based tools available on the market today are designed to support these types of tasks are labeled EMISs. However, they are typically unconnected and uncoordinated, stand-alone tools that are implemented in an ad hoc manner. This has created fragmented, confusing and conflicting perceptions of EMISs resulting in any software package that meets a singular or multiple needs of an environmental manager being called an EMIS. Ideally, an EMIS should be viewed more holistically, An EMIS should enhance the purpose of an EMS considerably and provide a trans-boundary medium that crosses boundaries of logistics, data, motivation, language, culture and intellect.

This document is intended for organizations that wish to effectively manage and improve their environmental performance intelligently by understanding the role of information technology during EMS implementation and maintenance. It demonstrates the importance of an EMIS by using a scenario of a company to illustrate EMIS as an effective technological approach that assures an environmental system´s optimal performance. It also demonstrates the benefits of moving from an ineffective, fragmented system to a proactive, holistic management framework.

Market Pressure & Reaction

Market globalization has made it necessary for companies to greatly improve the quality and environmental soundness of products and services they provide. The ease with which countries now communicate with one another and work together within single, or multiple business communities help to facilitate this new culture of excellence. The natural boundaries of commerce have been eliminated, and new horizons have been opened to companies and competitors.

Global competition increases pressure on companies to produce goods of greater quality at the lowest possible cost. Additionally, with information available instantly, consumers are able to define the specifications of products they wish to purchase as well as the price they are able to pay for them. The harsh reality is, however, that companies unable to operate under such conditions are quickly replaced by those that can.

Organizations in today´s market are more likely to adopt private, unilateral or internal standards in order to meet the requirements of the global economy. Faced with new challenges of multi-system management (environmental, health & safety, quality, economic, etc.), companies are beginning to question what are the key elements of success when deciding to implement an EMS based on ISO 14001, i.e. consider the possibility of full integration of disparate systems, feasibility of information/data integration, and ease of use.

Role of ISO 14001

The ISO 14001 standard was first published in 1996, since then, companies have voluntarily sought certification for one, or all of the following reasons:

In addition, suppliers are now being pressured to conform to the ISO 14001 standard. This has been the case with the Ford Motor Company in the United States. Ford set the stage in September 1999 by requiring most suppliers to become certified by 2003. General Motors (GM) has since followed suit. Other companies such as IBM, Xerox and Bristol Myers Squibb may also be following this trend soon.

The judicial courts of the United States and Canada have done their part to pave the way toward easy implementation of EMS´s, aswell. Legislation from both sides of the border appears to either require or encourage companies to become ISO 140001 certified. For example, in the case between Delaware Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and GM a $400,000 fine was reduced to $200,000 in exchange for GM´s agreement to seek certification for their plant in Wilmington, Delaware ².

Despite the fact that the pressures mentioned above might be some of the main reasons behind the sharp climb in the number of ISO 14001 certifications, economic and social responsibility to stakeholders are still valuable arguments for becoming certified ¹.

The Operational Context of an EMIS: A Scenario

Once a company implements or decides to implement an EMS being able to identify, then manage all the significant elements that are likely to impact the environment becomes the first challenge. Figure 1 shows the major groupings of impacts that managers and professionals need to consider in order to successfully maintain and evolve an EMS.

The Environmental Operation Context
Figure 1: The Environmental Operation Context

To illustrate the complexity of an environmental manager´s challenge let´s consider the case of International Co. a company based in the U.S. with many plants operating around the globe. International Co. is recognized as an industry leader, and recently environment management has become one of the main business strategies. The majority of this company´s sites are on their way to becoming ISO 14001-certified and/or ISO 9001-certified for the quality management system.

The Challenge

Environmental program management at International Co. and reporting are carried out using office tools that have been set up according to pre-established corporate templates. The office tools include manuals, memos, procedures, some Access and Excel databases, scattered between workstations and people.

Documentation is centralized on the corporate intranet, easily accessible but often out of date or found in incompatible formats. The company´s philosophy is to encourage employees to participate in improving the company´s environmental, health & safety and quality performance, to communicate all potential non-conformances and suggest possible corrective or preventive actions. However, the support systems to really do so are not in place.

The executives of International Co. have realized that the way they currently operate does not enable them to adequately share the environmental vision and information managed by each of their sites. Therefore, access to the information is limited to the site itself, making it increasingly difficult for personnel at corporate headquarters to gain access, keep track of performance and allocate resources effectively.

The environmental leaders at International Co. know that the successful management of an EMS comes from the smooth circulation of information from, and to, executive management, middle-management, and operations (Table 1). Therefore, environmental managers at each plant directly communicate with company leaders at the head office on a regular basis.

Table 1: EMIS Information Flows
General EMIS System Components Executive Environmental Management Operations
Inputs Interests of:
  • Shareholders
  • Other Stakeholders
  • Other Executives
  • Industry Peers
  • Best Practices
  • Policies, Standards
  • Regulations
  • Regulations
  • Policies, Standards
  • Engineering Requirements
  • Internal Reports
Processes
  • Knowledge Management
  • Decision Support
  • Workflow
  • EMS Auditing
  • Environmental Cost/ Risk/ Impact Assessment
  • Workflow
  • Mass-flow Analysis
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Workflow
Outputs
  • Directives
  • Policies, Standards
  • Environmental Reports
  • Environmental Process and Organizational Improvements
  • Goals, Targets
  • Compliance Reports
  • Permit Applications
  • Policies, Standards
  • Internal Reports
  • Process Improvements
  • Monitoring Reports
  • Compliance Reports

However, International Co. executive management is beginning to realize that they must be able to evaluate their environmental performance better, and on a continual, real-time basis. They must also be able to quickly identify new ways to do business in order to improve performance while reducing potential environmental risks. And, by carrying out these objectives, they will ideally be able to recognize how new environmental targets should be defined and supported. Finally, they identify a key element of success as being the ability to create appropriate implementation and training plans that can be set up and provided to employees quickly, follow-ups on established performance processes carried out, and audits conducted accurately. All these activities should make performance evaluations by managers and decisions to improve the system and monitor performance much easier.

Meeting the Challenge

Given these key management requirements, EMS implementers at International Co. realize that in order to manage a changing landscape of environmental issues efficiently, if not profitably (system inputs, laws and regulations, aspects, impacts, procedures, stakeholder needs, etc.) while protecting the environment should be done using cutting-edge technologies that can streamline the process of environmental management while not compromising performance. Therefore, environmental leaders at the head office and at each plant decide to apply a strategically oriented technical approach based on a sound environmental information system framework. Such an approach will enable them to:

International Co. considers implementing a high-performance solution that enables it to control all dimensions of environmental management, from the supplier to the customer, from the distributor to the community next door. Managing all stages of production, and allowing information to be shared seamlessly while assuring the integration of the quality (ISO 9001) and health and safety (OHSAS 18001 & OSHA) management systems becomes a prime objective.

Another prime objective is the ability for any employee to be able to configure his or her workspace like a personalized dashboard, easily locating tasks and information associated with the EMS but assigned specifically for them. In summary, the system must enable all environmental information to be accessed and shared when desired.

Environmental Information Management Considerations

At the operational level, there are a multitude of tools to support activities that fulfill compliance and environmental programmatic responsibilities. These tools are usually homegrown, unconnected and if off-the-shelf, very specific to tasks. This ad hoc manner of information management directly reflects the nature of an organization´s core business and is hard to avoid. Middle management has more defined information requirements and responsibilities, i.e. directly supporting a specific regulation or waste management and site remediation needs in the field. The tools in use at this level are more data management and knowledge management tools, like environmental management intranets, environmental auditing assessment software, MSDS software, etc.

At the executive level, the information requirements are often not defined. There is a high degree of information and data summarization as information and data is reported upwards, i.e. environmental auditing information and data on targets and objectives. Due to the risks or potential shortcomings when information and data is highly summarized, less ad hoc tools and more integrative tools are required for reporting, and communicating. To pull these different types of information management together what is required is a different IT implementation approach. Such an approach would: leverage internal systems; be based on best-in-class, flexible software application that fulfills most of the required environmental information management needs; and, integrate well with the existing IT architecture and cultural enviroment.

Choosing an Intelligent EMIS

Table 2 outlines the three categories of EMIS implementation strategies that have been deployed by most organizations to date. This table demonstrates typical strategies, the benefits, drawbacks and what it takes to develop it.

Table 2: Typical EMIS Implementation Strategies
EMIS Implementation Strategies Benefits (B) and
Drawbacks (D)
Type of System
1. Using internal and external resources, build an EMIS from scratch. B:Allows a company to create the ideal EMIS with very little technological compromise. Customized System
D:Resource intensive; time, money and knowledge
2. Re-engineer an existing system, i.e. accounting system, to accommodate environmental information. B:May not need to purchase or acquire new systems; there may be some inherent compatibility with other systems. Customized System
D:Resource intensive, compromised EMIS functionality and/or architecture of existing system, requires in-depth knowledge of system to be changed.
3. Developing an EMIS through enhancements and adaptations to existing systems without reengineering. B:Uses existing knowledge and expertise in implementing and maintaining the software. Customized System
D:Can be resource intensive, clearly defined information requirements are critical to identifying system integration strategies and candidates.
4. Buy and implement off-the-shelf or standardised EMIS. B:Relatively affordable and accessible. Usually task specific, therefore, easier to maintain and learn. Perhaps more flexible if customisable. Off-the-Shelf Package(s)
D:Highly task specific and not easily integrated into existing systems or between them, unless Java based, usually very data intensive.

In addition, there are generally three EMIS design options that organizations could consider and use to base costing scenarios upon when deciding an IT approach. This additional level of consideration can further optimize the EMIS choice. The context of the EMIS is almost as important as the type of EMIS itself. The EMIS design options are as follows4:

  1. Meta-information System: Reference information is available on the location of environmental and business data available in the company.
  2. Virtual Database System: Users access and update information via a uniform and standardized web or client-server interface.
  3. Central Database System or Data Warehousing Approach: Required environmental data are collected by the various information systems of the company and centralized in the data warehouse so that it can be easily accessed on demand.

For the unique needs of International Co., and many other companies just like it, buying an off-the-shelf, but customizable EMIS is the best option. Such a decision best fits the pocket-book and falls under design option 2 - Virtual Database System. With the power of the web and advanced programming languages, the more expensive central database or data-warehousing options might no longer be necessary in most cases to support an EMIS.

Making an EMIS Implementation Successful

The success of businesses depends on the performance of employees. International Co.´s performance is thus determined by the gap between the real and optimal performance of all employees. Studies conducted by Professor A. Rossett have shown that four (4) factors affect employee performance, and address the gap between desired and real employee performance. Parallels with environmental management have been drawn by MacLean, Tovar and Phyper, 20005:

  1. Knowledge and Skills: individuals are not familiar with regulatory requirements or the ways in which to carry out tasks;
  2. Incentives: no feedback is provided on employee performance, no penalties are given to those responsible for environmental incidents;
  3. Design of the Work Environment: no adequate tools to perform the job; and,
  4. Motivation: motivation is affected by the value that individuals attach to the goals expected by the company, therefore, if workers are not aware of the value of the contribution of their specific unit to the attainment of environmental objectives, then chances are that objectives are not taken seriously enough.

The EMIS or intelligent EMIS directly addresses two (2) of the four (4) factors that account for the gap in desired performance. First, it augments an employee´s knowledge by providing constant access to the correct information. Second, it constitutes an essential tool for organizing an employee´s work environment, also critical for the environmental manager.

Indirectly, an intelligent EMIS also addresses the two remaining factors, incentives and motivation. An effective system will allow management to monitor and track environmental activities tying together improvements in environmental conditions to specific employee tasks and responsibilities. This type of employee - system interaction forms a critical feedback loop that is a corner-stone of EMS continual improvement (Figure 2). This feedback loop should provide the information necessary to revise company policies creating better incentives in tune with the company´s environmental performance.

The Continual Improvement of the EMS
Figure 2: The Continual Improvement of the EMS

Technological Considerations

In summary, International Co. is seeking a technology that will facilitate the implementation and maintenance of the EMS. First of all, considering the large number of workstations involved, and the mobility of employees, International Co. should consider a technology that is accessible via a web browser. Second, recognizing the expense involved in reinventing the wheel, International Co. could leverage an off-the-shelf solution, but one that is customizable to their needs. Finally, the chosen technology should support all elements that have been defined in and by the EMS.

In order to optimize the the system to be chosen, two factors need to be seriously considered for a successful EMIS, inter-connectivity and the interface. The lack of connectivity and an un-friendly interface will compromise the ability of an EMIS being able to support EMS processes and performance.

Inter-connectivity

The Interface

The system´s interface must be user-friendly and allow end-users to view only the information that the system administrator has allowed them to view. This allows for secure information management and prevention of time lost searching for information.

Barriers and Enablers to EMIS Implementation

Not unlike other business reengineering activities, implementing an EMIS is not easy and is met with many barriers. Below are listed several key barriers that are common to an EMIS implementation, or even conceptualization to be aware of.

Barriers:

  1. Difficulty managing conflicting and voluminous government environmental regulatory requirements;
  2. Difficulty recognizing and identifying the benefits of improved environmental performance;
  3. Little internal support or recognition from the field for "integrated" environmental management systems;
  4. Over regulated,;
  5. Scarce resources available to put the processes in place necessary for an EMIS;
  6. Disconnect between executive level environmental objectives and operations level workflow;
  7. Highly distributed software and database systems; and
  8. Communication between IT support and environmental professionals.

Conversely, there are also enabling factors for EMIS implementation. Many of the enabling factors mirror the barriers. There are several key factors that research has shown contribute to the successful deployment of an EMIS.

Enablers:

  1. Maintaining above-average environmental performance, i.e. consistently within compliance, thus allowing for resources to be freed for EMS activities;
  2. Demonstrated internal support from executive-level management and staff, that environmental excellence can create a strategic advantage for the company in the market place or in society;
  3. Resources to undertake the process necessary to implement an EMIS;
  4. Implementing environmental management systems or programs that have business-purpose, not merely compliance-purpose;
  5. Making available environmental management goals and objectives that are clearly integrated with existing business processes and goals;
  6. Highly integrated software systems and databases; and
  7. High degree of communication between IT support and environmental managers.

Conclusion

As mentioned in the introduction, an EMIS can enhance the performance of an EMS considerably but also, provide a trans-boundary medium that crosses barriers of logistics, motivation, data, language, culture and intellect. Therefore, the family of technologies that make-up an EMIS need to be very adaptable and flexible, thus facilitating more strategic use of environmental and other business information by anyone in the organisation. An organization can almost guarantee success by enabling diverse users to adapt the information to their needs and purposes on a daily basis. That is why choosing a solution that is a customizable, off-the-shelf solution based on virtual web architecture is the the most cost-effective and efficient approach. Not only for International Company, but for all companies.

References:

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Copyright © 2001, ECO Services International