What gives you pleasure? Holding a newspaper or getting the news? Buying or renting a DVD or watching the film? The pleasure usually comes from the information contained in the product, not from the physical product itself. Who actually likes driving to work?

A telecommute from the home office has to be preferable much of the time. As Sun’s head of public policy, Richard Barrington, likes to say, “We need to de-couple economic growth from the need to increase consumption of natural resources.” The experience is what counts rather than the means by which the experience is achieved.

All of these things are instances of dematerialisation, where consumption of atoms – paper, plastic and petrol – is replaced with the consumption of bits through the computer screen. Of course, there’s a short-term hit, in that computers, cables, fibre optics, routers, servers and all the rest of the paraphernalia have to be installed but, once in place, they can enable dematerialisation on a grand scale. This saves companies money and can improve the lives of employees and their families. And, maybe, it will save the inhabitants of this planet too.

At the heart of most dematerialisation is software. Even the humble mobile phone, with its camera, calculator, email, web access, instant messaging and so on, is the result of dematerialisation. How many devices would you have once needed to carry to achieve all that functionality? Even answering machines and faxes have been replaced by software equivalents.

The same goes for remote meetings. Cisco’s TelePresence is a classic. Special rooms are being set up all over the world. They look like boardrooms with an oval table. Typically, six seats on one side face three screens on the other. Each screen can display two people in high resolution. Each screen can be broadcast from the same office or from a different one. Instead of the time and expense of flying across continents for ‘face to face’ meetings, it could simply be a case of commuting to the nearest town or city.

In an extreme case of dematerialisation Cisco recently projected a holographic image of a person in San José to Bangalore, where he shared the stage with company chairman and CEO, John Chambers.

At a more mundane level, an IP network allows for all manner of devices to be connected. Sensing equipment, lights, heating/cooling, cameras and so on could all be controlled automatically by appropriate software. Why send people out to visually inspect tank farms or railway points when you can have a camera beaming back high-definition pictures to engineers sitting in the warm and dry?

Whichever way you look, CIOs can improve their value to the organisation by helping the company cut unnecessary use of power and raw materials. Telecommuting not only cuts such waste, it also promotes a better working life for individuals and it also means that office space, and all the associated expenses, can be slashed.

The CIO is one of the best placed people to weigh up the opportunities for dematerialisation. They can reduce the number of machines in use with software virtualisation. They can reduce the number of datacentres with consolidation. They might even be able to reduce the number of servers they buy by extending the purchase cycle. It all means fewer machines being manufactured which is another form of dematerialisation. Heat from the datacentre could be recycled into space heating, removing the need for it to be generated in another way.

When it comes to company operations, we’ve already talked about applications to support teleworking. But what about moving to thin clients, which also bring power savings and security benefits in their wake? And, finally, why not become an informal adviser to the company with regard to putting digital intelligence into its own goods and services?

Rather than being isolated as an irritating but necessary expense, the IT department can come to the fore as a genuine force for change. All staff have to do is learn to communicate effectively with the board. And what better opening gambit than a combination of cost saving with improved corporate, environmental and social responsibility?

David Tebbutt is a programme director for open research firm, Freeform Dynamics