With Australian utilities embroiled in domestic challenges ranging from grid modernisation to tightening regulation, it’s easy to forget that many utility operators around the world have faced similar obstacles — and may have ideas about how to overcome them. Here, Nigel Watson, Group Information Services Director at northern England’s Northumbrian Water, touches on key points he’s learned during his quest to create the most digital water company in the world.

Nigel Watson

Ahead of his keynote address at the Digital Utilities 2019 conference, 21-22 March in Melbourne, Nigel Watson discussed the critical benefits that digitisation can provide for utilities, particularly in the areas of improving customer experience and operational resilience.

Mr Watson has worked in business and IT roles across a range of competitive industries for more than 30 years. Since joining Northumbrian Water in 2015, he has led the successful delivery of the utility’s customer transformation program, and is now spearheading its intelligent asset management program.

According to Mr Watson, one of the major enablers of change is cloud computing.

“Put simply, massive computer power has become a lot cheaper and more available, i.e. rentable.

“That, in turn, has helped to make artificial intelligence and machine learning, which have been around for decades, a reality in most businesses.”

Given that utilities generate millions or even billions of data points per day, the ability to harness that data and learn from it comes with massive advantages. At Northumbrian Water, Mr Watson is especially focused on integrating machine learning — which he calls the “biggest trend” among utilities embracing digitisation — into network operations and business goals.

“We have been very careful to make sure that we complement our knowledge of the network with our machine learning initiatives,” Mr Watson said.

“We’re especially focused on ‘learning’ how to deliver a better and more personalised customer service, and are working hard on enabling greater resilience through better informed and more targeted maintenance and operational regimes.”

Improving efficiency through digital transformation

According to Mr Watson, utilities who ignore the movement toward digitisation risk missing the chance to eliminate inefficiencies — which can carry both regulatory and operational consequences.

“The regulators are keen to make sure that household bills are affordable,” Mr Watson said.

“I think that most organisations have historically implemented Six Sigma or Lean or some other program that has driven out an amount of inefficiency.

“Tapping into further savings is likely to require more digital customer and employee experiences.”

Utilities should also consider how much their internal systems will appeal to younger users if they want to attract fresh employees entering the workforce.

“People in their late teens and early twenties have grown up with Google and Apple, who have delivered some pretty incredible technology,” Mr Watson said.

“It is not really attractive to them to walk into work and start using a 15-20 year old ERP system.”

When asked what Australian utilities can learn from the UK-based Northumbrian Water and other international companies, Mr Watson stressed that all utilities should reach beyond their borders and industries and look for new ways of enhancing what they do.

“I think it is really important to horizon-scan.

“When you do, it is important to also understand the context in which the example has taken place. Why did it work there? What are the limits of the analogy?

“Asking those questions will greatly increase your chances of success within your own organisation.”

Where has your company looked for digital inspiration?

Hear more from Nigel Watson about embracing digitisation in your own organisation at Digital Utilities 2019, running from 21-22 March at the Pullman Hotel Albert Park in Melbourne.