Digital transformation requires mindset and cultural shift within organizations
Digital solutions have demonstrated the potential to transform water systems and address the escalating challenges of accessibility, affordability, and resilience. But how can utilities ensure their digital deployments deliver incremental value over time
One key insight that emerged from Xylem’s recent paper, Ripple Effect: A Movement Towards Digital Transformation, is the importance of leaning into the practical experience of “going digital”.
Speaking with Making Waves, Tim Braun, Vice President of Enterprise Solutions at Xylem, reflects on the importance of putting people at the heart of every digital strategy and embracing culture to meet the digital moment.
How important is empowering operators in delivering digital transformation?
To quote the words of Peter Drucker, culture eats strategy for breakfast. It does not matter how strong a strategy is, it will fail without an organizational culture that encourages and empowers people to implement it.
Within the water industry, we tend to speak a lot about technology, digital, data, and innovation. One word you do not hear too often, however, is culture. We have a lot of conversations about what we do, but we need to have more of an open dialogue about how and why we do it.
Within utility settings, teams and digital offerings tend to be siloed. This is not by design or intent, but a reflection of how utilities have evolved to manage critical challenges with limited resources. The technologies and tools built to serve utilities are developed for and within those silos, and often the value that digital produces remains confined as a result.
For digital to flourish, we need to break out of these silos. That’s where people come in. There is a real need to shift the way individual teams behave and move away from outdated practices. To meet the digital moment, we need to do things differently.
How can utility leaders begin to put this culture shift into practice?
The global water utility leaders we consulted for Ripple Effect are setting the pace when it comes to digital transformation. One thing they all have in common is that they are intentional about putting their people in the driver’s seat – building a culture of innovation with their operators, for their operators.
It is not enough for a leader to want to transform their organization into a data-driven, digital-savvy utility. The job of leaders is to empower teams and individuals to embrace this vision. This is Change Management 101; be active and visible, build a coalition of support, and communicate.
If we can connect the dots between silos, we can democratize the value across the organization. The network effect of bringing these disparate systems together can have a profoundly positive effect on a utility’s operational efficiency, resilience, and costs, while also fomenting and bolstering its culture.
This is not just a technology challenge. When we connect the dots across silos, a whole new world of collaboration emerges. This takes time, effort, and relentless commitment by leadership. But it is ultimately worthwhile.
Where have you seen this type of culture in action?
I love listening to Oluwole “O.J.” McFoy, General Manager of Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA), talk about this topic. As an incredibly forward-thinking utility, BSA began building a dynamically optimized sewer system before really turning on the lights with a real-time sensor network and digital tools.
However, they kept their real-time control strategy, technology, and algorithms away from their operators. Despite this huge investment in a digital program, the technology was essentially a black box for operators, and it had limited results. When BSA evolved the strategy to focus on people, the project flourished beyond anything they could have ever imagined.
The way BSA delivers its projects now is completely different from seven or eight years ago. It integrates people right from the start, and everyone is at the table. As O.J. likes to say, when people help shape the process, they take ownership, and their digital program is a true testament to that. The utility has reduced combined sewer overflow volumes by 450 million gallons a year and saved US$145 million in unnecessary capital expenditures.
Why do you think this approach has been so successful?
People support what they create. They also gravitate toward innovative cultures. Engaging operators at every turn creates a desire to be part of something great. Pair this with the power of digital, and fiefdoms start to dissolve.
Teams that were at odds suddenly develop empathy for each other as their digital platforms increasingly uncover and unlock new connective tissue. They can now understand and actively leverage each other’s value.
Just ask someone like Matt VanDoren who joined the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) in part because he saw incredible value in the culture that its team has built over a decade. When the utility wanted to optimize its collection system, it focused on turning on the lights for operators and bringing several elements together, including combined sewer overflow (CSO) monitoring data, flow monitors, and real-time control facilities.
To put it simply, the insights were mind-blowing. The utility has reduced sewer overflow volumes by 247 million gallons, around 2 percent of the total volume of water it treats annually, and saved US$38 million in the process. And they haven’t stopped there. The utility continues to innovate and evolve its systemwide decision support systems, advancing its digital transformation journey with people and culture at the center.