Innovation stories provide teachable moments for water utilities

Digitally enabled innovation must engage your entire workforce, not just the tech savvy staff. Leveraging all user types in planning and testing is key to lasting adoption.

Digitally enabled innovation development

I’ve been fortunate to have rewarding careers in the water sector as well as education. One day, while I was teaching middle school, a group of graduate students visited my classroom to pilot test an interactive reading software product that they were designing.

I quickly noticed that the team was only selecting the brightest, best-behaved students for the test group. When I asked why, they said most kids wouldn’t focus on the modules enough to provide useful data.

The software designers didn’t understand that the students they were passing over were most important to their success. The distracted students represented the majority of end users. Failure to draw them in would leave the designers with a theoretically sound but unengaging product, one that wouldn’t boost student performance or school-wide metrics.

I’m reminded of this when I work with utilities implementing new technology. Some organizations make the same mistakes those grad students did—designing solutions with and for optimal users instead of considering how to maximize benefits for all end users.

Digital transformation’s most critical component

Throughout my 15-year career working with the water sector on digitally enabled innovation, I’ve seen well-designed solutions fail to provide returns on investment. It wasn’t the project scale, timeline, technology type, or utility size that sunk those efforts; it was a failure to gain buy-in from staff.

Realizing the full value of innovative digital upgrades (i.e., financial savings, better customer relationships, data-driven decision-making, etc.) comes down to consistent system use. Recent research from Arcadis shows that utilities have reached this same conclusion.

Digitally enabled innovation: The power lies with people, a new Arcadis report, presents results from a survey of more than 90 water utilities. Seventy-six percent of those interviewed identified employees as the most critical stakeholder for successful digital transformation. And nearly every respondent stressed that any transformation effort will fall flat without employee buy-in.

Along with the survey, some participants shared their own innovation stories to provide firsthand experiences and lessons learned. This stories present real-world examples of the research findings: People are the key to successful digitally enabled innovation.

Innovation is culture, not a program

Consider Aarhus Vand’s story, featured in the report. It’s leading the way in intelligent water by using automation, IoT sensors, artificial intelligence, and even social media to optimize operations and customer relationships. But as Chief Digital Information Officer Jesper Kjelds explained, cutting-edge technology is only part of it:

“It’s not all about bits and bytes and tech, there’s also a large cultural component to it. People feel great about being able to innovate and explore. They are embracing the digital transformation because they too see that we can do things better and smarter.”

I encourage utilities to build an innovative mindset among the workforce long before implementing any new technology or process changes. It’s important to train staff on and reward them for working proactively, collaborating, and utilizing all available information in decision-making.

Establishing a culture of innovation prepares staff to easily accept and integrate changes into their daily routines.

Engage all users early

Back to the grad students. They could and should have been designing and testing their product with all students in mind, not just those intrinsically motivated to work through learning modules. Considering what would captivate and benefit every end user could have yielded a more impactful product.

The same goes for utilities. Including staff from all levels and departments (including those not eager for new technology) early in planning ensures the implemented solution meets the utility’s specific needs.

Phil Tangorra, director of water quality at Mohawk Valley Water Authority, described how engagement of staff shaped their digital landscape in Mohawk Valley’s Innovation Story.

“[Ideas] came up from many departments,” Tangorra explained. “Water Quality wanted to better manage the quality of the water moving through distribution system, Engineering wanted to control water loss, IT wanted to capture work that’s done in the field, and so on.” And thus, planning efforts sought communication and software solutions that would support these priorities.

Giving the workforce ownership in the project creates a vested interest in its success. Plus, it can uncover threats to adoption that you can address well before they derail implementation.

Write your innovation success story

Hundreds of water utilities have implemented digital solutions, including some early adopters that have compiled more than a decade’s worth of refinements and lessons learned. Exploring their insights can help utilities lay strong foundations for their own digitally enabled innovation journeys.

No two experiences will be the same, but one common theme arises from success stories throughout the water sector: People are the key to thriving digitally enabled innovation.

Katie Umberg

Senior Management Consultant, Intelligent Water, NA +1 502 203 7668 Ask me a question
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