As an official innovation partner of hedgehog lab, Northumbrian Water are one company tackling challenges more actively than most in the market.
After catching up with Martin Jackson in our Talking Utilities podcast to discuss topics such as how the Amazon Echo is opening up new channels for customer engagement in the industry, we've now chatted with Martin once more to get more of an insight into how the organisation has embedded a culture of innovation, find out what other technologies are on their radar and learn more about the company's ambition to become a disruptor other company's follow.
hhl: For the benefit of those who haven't listened to our previous chat or didn't attend Innovate Now - Conversational Interaction, let's kick off by getting to know you a little more. Can you tell us a little about yourself, your past and your current role with Northumbrian Water?
Martin: I always wanted to be an inventor as a child, spending many hours at the kitchen table making things from household items. I loved the idea that I could take mundane everyday objects and combine them into something that had a greater purpose. It gave me a real buzz to see people’s reactions, and although I have moved on from toilet tubes and cereal boxes, I still get that same feeling today when we create a technology-based solution that delivers real value for our customers.
Martin pictured at the 2018 NWG Innovation Festival with Explain Market Research's 'fans for life'.
I am the Head of Strategy and Enterprise Architecture at Northumbrian Water Group: spending the last 18 years working in IT across a broad range of roles in Software Engineering, Programme Delivery, Strategy and Relationship Management. I worked in the Automotive industry for 12 years prior to joining Northumbrian Water, where I delivered cross-European finance and HR programmes; then moved to NWG to pick up a position in Business Relationship Management.
My current role is to lead a team that are responsible for everything from technology discovery and digital strategy, through to enterprise design and technical solutions. It is our job to understand the business challenges, and successfully leverage new technologies to enable us to work smarter and provide outstanding services to our customers.
hhl: And how do you stay up to date with the latest in technology and innovation?
Martin: There are so many possibilities and far too many for one individual to absorb alone. I am incredibly fortunate to lead a talented team of Strategy Leads and Architects. I believe that we have some of the leading technical minds in the industry across many areas, including analytics, cloud, digital and mobility. They are empowered to go and explore what the very best looks like and to then shape our strategies across these areas.
It is essential for me to invest time in building high-value relationships, where individuals and partners understand our business challenges and can then work closely with us to help us solve them. I have established multiple important relationships across a diverse range of industries and technology specialisms.
I believe that when I invest time in such partnerships, these people then tend to contact me with great opportunities that could benefit our business and its customers. The key is basing these relationships on real intent and enabling these partners to know enough about our business challenges to articulate how a particular innovation could lead to better outcomes for Northumbrian Water.
Martin is a big fan of Amazon Echo devices, as he revealed at Innovate Now.
That takes time; you need to be honest about your challenges, lower your guard a little and remain open to healthy challenge. I am naturally inquisitive, and technology is as much a hobby for me as it is a profession. I love to learn new things, and I spend much time outside of the office reading, watching and listening to technology-related media. I tend to favour real experiences over the theory, and I will quite often adopt a technology and use it myself.
I’ve recently had a new addition to the family: with the arrival of my second child, and it’s amazing how you use your time more efficiently. I typically listen to tech podcasts on the daily commute, and I’d recommend that to anyone. It’s quiet time, stuck in the car with nowhere to go - it’s time that you can use constructively.
hhl: NWG strives to be the world’s most digital water company. Having won the Fujitsu Digital Innovation Award, do you think there’s a case to suggest you may already be that company?
Martin: Northumbrian Water has a very clear vision to be the national leader, and we are very clear what that means to us. We were recently acknowledged as the most trusted water company, and we are very open with the challenges that we face as an organisation and where we want to be even better for our customers.
It is great to receive recognition for all the fantastic work that we are doing on innovation, but ultimately it is about being the best organisation we can be for our customers. The idea of ‘The Digital Water Company’ is to describe the role that new and emerging technology can play in helping us to realise that vision.
The digital water company is one that delivers leading performance through smart operations, is intelligent in how its people work and provides easy and engaging services to people and customers.
Image by kaboompics.com.
The key is looking at the outcomes that we deliver to our customers, understanding opportunities to accomplish that outcome more smartly, and then using the myriad of technologies that can help us achieve that more successfully. Such an approach helps us to embed digital ways of working into the fabric of what we do as an organisation, and the key difference with digital technologies is how quickly we can go around that loop. We can adopt things more efficiently, measure their success and promptly take forward the ideas that unlock the most value for our business.
hhl: And how do you stay at the forefront of innovation in water?
Martin: Water is such a brilliant industry to be part of and now is a crucial time for the sector. Northumbrian Water is a very diverse business; we are a customer service company, an operations company, an engineering company, a communications company, a leisure company, a science company - the list goes on.
We have some brilliant people in each of these areas, and with decades of experience and expertise, many of the challenges we face are very well understood.
Nevertheless, we’ve worked hard over recent years to create a culture where we are open to looking outwards for new solutions to our challenges. We have Innovation Ambassadors embedded across the whole organisation, who are empowered to work with their teams to discover smarter ways of working and making it everyone’s job to think about how we can innovate.
I am a firm believer that innovation is about creating an environment that encourages diversity of thought. It is about bringing people together from different backgrounds and perspectives, and then injecting in some real expertise on the problem to create new ways of thinking about often well-known challenges.
Notes from a customer engagement sprint NWG carried out with hedgehog lab.
Indeed, this is what our 5-day design think sprint process is about, and we typically run 20+ ‘innovation sprints’ per year. These sprints will involve our employee experts most aligned with the topic being explored: along with external subject matter experts, partners, academia and even our customers.
The intention is to understand a challenge, come up with new solutions and then to test them out to find the most successful ideas to take forward. This ability to dissect significant problems and seize opportunities quickly is the key to ensuring that we lead the way on innovation. Digital technologies mean that we can realise value from great ideas much quicker than has been possible in the past.
hhl: The NWG Innovation Festival returned for a second year over the Summer. Can you tell us about some of the most exciting outcomes of the event?
Martin: I was blown away by what we achieved at last year’s Innovation Festival, but the 2018 festival was twice as successful on every single measure. We had 13 innovation sprints (+2 hackathons), 510 organisations attended (including some of the biggest names in technology, academia and business) – meaning that we had 2000 of the brightest minds, tackling some of water and society’s biggest challenges.
The festival has many different layers to it. It has a wellbeing element with a daily programme of wellbeing activities – including things like morning yoga, sports competitions, health MOTs and mindfulness. Then there’s the STEM side of the festival, which this year had 700 children attending over five days to take part in science workshops. Finally, there is an excellent programme of evening entertainment so that the 800 people that participated in each day could relax and create networks at the end of a hard day of innovating.
hedgehog lab CEO, Sarat Pediredla, speaking at the 2018 NWG Innovation Festival.
There were literally thousands of ideas created through the week, and we’ve since distilled that down, focusing on around 100 or so. A couple of my favourite ideas include the Barnacle: a device that fits into toilet cistern to measure a whole host of things including water quality pressure and flow. And power from dog poo - bins where dog poo is collected and then converted to energy.
We also put together a task force of utility organisations that have agreed to create the first-ever complete underground map of the UK. These outputs will address real challenges that we have today, but it is even more exciting for me to think about how the STEM activities could inspire the young people in our region and to consider what that could mean in the future. If you are interested in being involved then head on over to innovationfestival.org, where we will soon be releasing details on next year’s festival.
hhl: You recently hinted over on Twitter that Northumbrian Water is beginning to explore integrations of artificial intelligence. Can you tell us more about how you're looking to benefit from AI?
Martin: I led a sprint at last summer’s festival that explored how life and work in 2030 will look. Many themes came from those five days, but two in particular stood out to me. Firstly, the idea that new technology interfaces would emerge in the so-called ‘post-app era’ and the first generation of those would be the prominence of voice interfaces over the next 2-3 years. The other was the positive disruptive influence that AI would have on current ways of working.
I am very much a ‘possibilist’, and I am not one for just sitting waiting for things to happen. It felt like the two were something we needed to take charge of and be doing something with now, and so this acted as a catalyst for two things.
NWG customers pictured in a voice workshop with the hedgehog lab team
Firstly, we started a small seed project with hedgehog lab that would look at voice, and specifically Alexa, as a channel that we could introduce into our business. We felt that customer-facing services would be a great area for us to explore but we anticipate that the work will lead to a roadmap for using voice as an interface across our business.
I also created an ‘Intelligence Architect’ role in my team and advertised it as a development opportunity for a software engineer who had a strong background in advanced data analysis technology. This role is about getting our hands dirty with a range of public cloud-based AI services – machine learning, bot frameworks, natural language, and to then look at cases within the business for these technologies. It was not our first dip into AI as we have already used machine learning and voice analysis to very good effect within the business, but this is about giving us focus to realise value from such services, and build a capability that we can expand and build. It’s about delivering value with the technologies that are available now and not being drawn too much into the hype.
hhl: Can you expand further on how Northumbrian Water is utilising technology as part of your customer experience efforts?
Martin: Northumbrian Water operates for the benefit of its customers, so naturally, customer experience is one of the critical pillars of our digital strategy. It’s vital that we recognise that we have a range of different customers and we must ensure that we offer innovative services whichever way the customer chooses to engage with us.
We spoke with 400,000 customers in the creation of our new business plan, and also hold ongoing dialogue with customers about the services that they would like to see. Customers have told us that they expect our services to be easy, convenient and personal to them; I believe that technology will play a key role in being able to deliver on this customer expectation continually.
We are making our services easy for our customers by thinking about the range of customer personas that we serve and building user experiences that meet their specific needs. That could be through a voice call, an app or a bot experience: we are partnering with leading digital design agencies to deliver the most engaging and effective ways for our customers to interact with us across all of those services.
NWG are working hard to ensure they meet customer desires.
A broad choice of channels that better blend seamlessly into the lifestyle of our customers ensures convenience. We are making services available at the point that the customer would like to use them. A great example of this is our Alexa service, where you can gain updates on what is happening in your area and quick tips on water usage from the kitchen bench.
Elsewhere, we are creating more personalised services that are driven by rich insights, using what we already know about that customer and their circumstances to create tailored customer journeys that deliver the most effective service outcomes. We can use AI to create more dynamic customer journeys, that better analyse the context of the interaction. If a customer has received a bill in the last week and then they contact us, then the contact will likely be for billing. We can then look to connect the customer to a billing specialist who is most likely to get the best outcome for them, and that can be due to specific expertise or even something as simple as being the last person who dealt with them. The system learns about the customer and becomes more targeted over time.
hhl: What do you perceive to be the most pressing issues facing those in the water/utilities industry at the moment?
Martin: Ofwat outlined four key themes as part of their price review and in preparation for the water companies submitting their 5-year business plans in early September (check out NWG’s plan at nwgourplan.co.uk). These themes were great customer service, long-term resilience, innovation and affordability.
Image by Skitterphoto.
Northumbrian Water has created a series of ambitious goals that describe how we will deliver in these areas. The common thread across it all is innovation and the ability for water companies to work smarter, so that we are efficient for our customers while delivering brilliant and secure services now and for future generations.
There are certainly some macro themes for the entire industry to work on together, and we covered some of these at this year’s NWG Innovation Festival. We ran a leakage Hackathon for instance, where we invited other water companies to come together and share learnings and insights on their practices. Such knowledge sharing will benefit the entire industry and support the resilience theme moving forward. We also ran a sprint that looked at new ways to reduce water consumption per capita. These are areas that are bigger than any one water organisation, but we feel it is our responsibility to take a leading role in such areas.
hhl: In energy, major brands are continuing to lose market share to disruptive and innovative brands. Do you see a similar future in the water industry?
Martin: You cannot be complacent in any industry and although we have the vision to be ‘the most digital water company’, there is no ceiling on our ambition. We continually look to compare ourselves to the very best in a particular field, whether that is utilities or not. If we take customer experience for instance; we pay particular attention to the retail sector and organisations such as Amazon, Apple and John Lewis who are successful pioneers in customer experience. We also evaluate the strengths of new entrants with natively digital models.
Northumbrian Water aren't afraid to draw inspiration from the likes of Apple. Image by Pixabay.
I firmly believe that Northumbrian Water is geared to be a brand that can be up there with those companies for leading customer experience. The innovation culture within the organisation is key to us being able to achieve a startup-like mindset, and become the ones looking to disrupt in new ways.
Many digital disruptors have achieved success by creating a platform which harnesses data to reduce friction or cost for customers. Water remains vertically integrated, so we are responsible for all elements of the value chain. We should turn that to our advantage, and we must look at how we can maintain leading performance at every stage to deliver great outcomes for customers.
The new digital strategy is really about creating a platform for our business that gives us a real-time 360-degree view of our customers, our assets and our operations. We can then bring this data together to provide smarter customer-facing services and layer excellent user experiences on top of that to be the disruptors for the industry to follow. It is fundamentally about delivering great value for customers and being the company that they would choose.
Enjoy our chat with Martin? Let us know who else you'd like us to share a discussion with over on Twitter, @hedgehoglab.