Innovation journey: Digitally enabled engagement fuels culture change

Many water utilities consider digital the final stop in achieving innovation. But in reality, digital should catalyze – not complete – utilities’ innovation journeys.

Mention digitally enabled innovation around utility experts and their minds immediately jump to paradigm-shifting tools and processes. You might hear a lot about AMI, IoT, AR/VR and the like.

But setting your sights on a discrete digital solution is like only fueling your car for your next destination. You might get there, but you’ll end up stranded with an empty tank. Instead, thoughtfully approaching digital as a catalyst rather than a destination is the best path to fostering utility innovation.

Digitally enabled innovation: The power lies with people

Recently, we partnered with the Water Research Foundation (WRF) to investigate innovation at water and wastewater utilities. The first phase of our research (Fostering Innovation Within Utilities – WRF 4642, completed in 2017) revealed that only 40 percent of utility executives have seen measurable change through innovation.

Intriguing, but why?

We discovered that utilities weren’t fully leveraging core business practices that encourage innovation and empower organizations to manage ideas as assets. This wasn’t ground breaking news for most utilities – only 20 percent of them claimed they effectively empower their workforce for innovation. But the roadmap for closing that gap remained unclear.

This eventually led us to Digitally enabled innovation: The power lies with people. Together with my colleague Esteban Azagra, Water Business Advisory Lead, we assembled a team and deployed a survey to analyze how utilities might leverage digital to catalyze innovation.

The big reveal: While digital provides a solution to the engagement challenge, most digital efforts neglect the human element.

Over 90 percent of survey participants were engaged in or recently completed a digital initiative, although none of them reported incorporating workforce development considerations. And when asked how digital can support areas of improvement, utilities ranked human resources last.

Utilities did, however, broadly recognize digital as a pathway to better collaboration, communication and knowledge transfer—highlighting the potential of digitally enabled innovation to connect the power of platforms and people. While we see the potential outcomes to be endless, these are a few of the most valuable in the near- and long-term:

  • Increasing transparency.
  • Connecting people to information as well as each other.
  • Facilitating informed and collaborative decision-making.
  • Enabling new ways of working.
  • Encouraging creative thinkers to imagine new ideas.

This is easy to say here, but what does it all look like in a live working environment?

Staff engagement: Our next research frontier

In our next phase of research with WRF (Leading Water and Wastewater Utility Innovation – WRF 4907), we will explore how utilities might facilitate engagement in innovation and measure the impact engagement has on workplace culture. We are unpacking topics such as:

  • Understanding and influencing social dynamics of utility-driven innovation.
  • Leveraging engagement tactics and tools to build a culture of innovation.
  • Leading innovation and reaching a diverse audience.

We hope that by sharing staff engagement success stories and lessons learned we will help identify effective engagement tactics, tools and success metrics that other organizations can use. As part of this effort, we will develop guidance for forging effective innovation partnerships as well as developing and launching meaningful innovation strategies. 

If you’d like to learn more about this work or to add your utility to the research team, please send me an email or reach out to me on LinkedIn (*


*Deadline for utility partner commitment letters is March 15, 2019.

Jason Carter

Water Strategy & Innovation Lead Ask me a question
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