How utilities can shift from an ego-system to an eco-system

The utilities sector will only unlock the true value of data by boosting diversity and changing workplace culture.

These were among the key takeaways from a roundtable hosted by Utility Week, in association with Siemens, attended by senior sector figures.

The attendees also discussed how utilities can use data as a tool to defend itself against reputational damage, along with warnings about how easily this could backfire. The group also questioned whether the sector has really identified its vision of the role it wants data to play in delivering for customers and building resilience.

However, the topic of creating a digital culture was one that dominated much of the discussion.

All of the companies represented reported an increase in the utilisation of data over the past year but many lamented these functions still being siloed. In particular, there were concerns of a tension between operational job titles and those responsible for digital / data functions.

One energy network representative said: “There is definitely a sense of ‘uh, oh, here come the data police’. There’s a perception that it’s all about what you can’t do with the data, whereas obviously we want to focus on all the amazing things data can help us do.”

There was agreement that the term ‘data owner’ was problematic because it perpetuated the idea that data is the domain of a particular individual or team. However, to create a system where all areas of the business are confident in the responsible use of data necessitates a culture change – and this has to come from the top.

One attendee described this as moving from an “ego-system to an eco-system” where all areas of the business understand that they are interconnected and where “data is the glue”.

A data and analytics specialist from a water company described their approach of focusing on the outcomes for each department and then showing how data could help achieve them.

They said: “You have to learn the language – talk to customer people about satisfaction scores, to finance about efficiencies, regulation teams about compliance. You don’t really need to talk about data at all.”

Life beyond Excel

One utilities executive described their time working in a major government department as an example of a very different approach to data. Here a cloud-based analytics service was opened up to all staff but with no pressure to use it. Over time a form of peer pressure led more and more members of the team to start familiarising themselves with the data and learning how to exploit it.

“It became a part of conversations but it came very much from the bottom up. The diversity of staff certainly helped – the civil service is generally very young and at the risk of generalising, young people are more comfortable with data so you constantly had these skills flowing into the department. It brought about a noticeable change because beforehand it was really all just on Excel.”

This sparked a further conversation on why utilities continue to struggle to diversify their workforce and whether there is a link between this and adopting a digital culture.

One attendee said: “We all  know this is a problem but I don’t see a real shift in the way we’re approaching it as an industry. There’s been incremental change but we haven’t gone far enough. We’re still talking about skillsets when we should probably be talking more about mindsets.”

Other participants agreed that diversity and digital go hand in hand, with a target of better representing society also likely to bring in much-needed skills.

While a bottom-up approach to embedding digital skills can reap rewards, our guests agreed this does not resolve senior teams of responsibility and that leaders have to start backing up their decisions with data.

One said: “There’s a risk of going too far the other way. Everyone’s looking at the data and coming up with the conclusion that suits them because there’s no common strategy.”

A senior figure at an energy network set out a situation they described as “vigilante data”: “You have a load of dashboards about performance and what you end up with is a bunch of experts, mainly operational managers that are running networks thinking they understand the data and they are trying to create insight from their own data. So then you end up with vigilante action.

“You want to empower your teams but there are also risks within their individual interpretation of the data. Data is great but insight is the really key thing.”

Data as a weapon

The roundtable also touched on the value of open data in building trust with the public as well as the potential pitfalls of this approach.

The example was cited of water companies increasingly open up data on sewer overflow spills for public scrutiny. There was a mixed reaction to this, with some of the attendees saying this had given back some control to customers, thus diffusing anger on an emotive issue while also allowing companies to reclaim some of the narrative. However, others argued this information would only be meaningful once put into context – for example, the volume or the dilution of what was discharged.

As one participant put it: “This is data as a weapon. But you have to be careful you don’t up shooting yourself in the foot.”

The group agreed that a successful data and digital strategy for utilities must be underpinned by an understanding of the end goals – and in particular how these will affect customers.

One participant summed up the challenge thus: “A lot of what we’re doing at the moment is either coping with existing processes or scaling them outwards. I just wonder whether we really understand what the vision is – what the customer is ultimately really wanting.

“And we can’t necessarily expect customers to articulate that. We have to figure it out to the best of our ability. It has to be automated and based on a set of principles. So, for you as a consumer, is it about price or is it convenience and to hell with the cost? Or is it sustainability? Or, as it will be in many cases, are you somewhere in the middle? If so, how do we as utilities work out those trade-offs?

“That’s where data can provide us the landing strip. We just have to work out where we’re flying to.”

Jon Turner, managing director of Siemens’ electrification & automation business in Great Britain & Ireland, concluded the discussion by talking about the need to forge new relationships built on harnessing the power of data.

He said: “All companies are guilty of operating in siloes at some points and that’s no different with data. It’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘this is my data and this is what it does for me’. But there are aspects of that data that could also be of huge value to other organisations. That’s why I was so pleased to hear so much about collaboration, not competition.

“Everyone has the same challenges – it’s just that we’re each faced with one particular corner of it so maybe we don’t see the whole. If we get to a culture where we see data as a potential solution to a thousand problems but accept we can’t find them all on our own then I think you get to that eco-system that was talked about earlier.

“For companies like Siemens, we need to go beyond just collecting the data, which we know we’re good at, and spend more time focusing on how we can unlock that potential and help you solve your problems.”