Talking with Nick Rutherford, Water Industry Transformation Leader

At Deltra, we know how critical it is to adopt new ways of working to increase efficiency and adapt to the ever changing digital era. New technologies are transforming the business landscape in ways that were once unimaginable. To cope with this, business leaders need to appropriately manage change to help their organisations facilitate a faster and more sustainable way of operating.

The utilities sector  is regarded as having been particularly slow to embrace this change, most notably the water industry. With the increasing demand for better digital resources, though, it is no longer optional for these companies to continue operating as they have been previously.

In the last few years there has been a surge in the number of CIOs and programme directors leading critical transformation projects. This is all in the name of creating better processes and infrastructure to deal with customer-led problems, and to increase efficiency across the board. The goal is to have a system in place to better anticipate and respond to emergencies, with the capability to cope with potential risks, and improve services to consumers in general.

We recently spoke to Nick Rutherford, currently the Strategic Technology and Transformation Consultant at Castle Water, to gain more insight into the ins and outs of undergoing a digital transformation within the utilities sector.

In this episode of ‘Talking with…’, Deltra Director Richard Archer and Nick discuss the growing pressure to reduce costs, the importance of using data effectively and the strategies that a good programme leader needs to embed to deliver a successful transformation.

Listen to the episode below or scroll down for our written overview.

The need for water companies to become digital

Despite what many would think, there is a lot more that goes on ‘behind the tap’ when it comes to providing households with a consistent water supply. Whether that’s people, processes, systems or equipment,  there are a lot of moving parts that need to be managed to make sure customers have 24/7 access to clean water. As we continue further into the digital era, there’s an expectation of having everyday services on-demandThis pressure extends beyond getting water out of a tap throughout the entire customer lifecycle. Water companies are expected to deliver their services with zero outages or at least minimal disruption, and need to provide immediate access to customer service solutions for when things don’t go to plan, all whilst  keeping costs low for the end user.

With the current socio-economic and political backdrop, the cost-of-living crisis is becoming overbearing for some, and politicians are putting service providers in the spotlight, Nick notes that while water companies are not in direct competition for customers and have regional billing networks, there is still a social responsibility bestowed upon them as an essential supplier to keep costs low and services flowing – especially at peak times.

Most water companies have been established for a very long time, and this comes with a plethora of problems – from legacy systems and processes to older physical infrastructure. These are all issues that need addressing for a company to thrive in an on-demand environment.  For Nick, the only way to stay both affordable and provide a better service is by becoming digital. It’s unsustainable for water companies to continue operating as they do currently and be able to meet these growing demands. Therefore, digitalising a company's asset infrastructure has to be first on the agenda.

Knowing where to invest

Streamlining infrastructure management and minimising potential risk across the network is paramount to keeping service levels and customer satisfaction high. Nick strongly believes that embracing intelligent systems and data is the way forward and will ensure business leaders are appropriately informed to make better investment decisions.  Leveraging data about asset health, customer satisfaction, and customer usage enables leaders to better mobilise staff, time, and money across the company.

The digital mapping of water systems makes it possible to access up-to-date information and ensure services are running without fault. Big data can be used to improve the detection of filtrations and leakages, and through monitoring water usage, companies can make real time decisions to optimise resources.

In addition to this, digital infrastructure assets will provide businesses with data on issues across the network, which will allow problems to be rectified quicker, putting less stress on customer service teams. Nick explains how digitalising these systems can also help to play a part in minimising any negative PR when issues do occur.

Alongside transformation of assets, Nick notes that front-facing services could do with a reboot too. For many water companies, managing customer service queries efficiently and enabling customers to self-serve needs to be a focus.  Drawing attention to the fact that many contact centres have already become fully automated in the last decade or so, Nick makes the point that allowing customers to get the information they need and speak to staff with issues in real-time is something most people expect these days, be it through web apps, social or telephone. There has already been a big transformation in the utilities sector: in energy the introduction of Smart technology in homes has vastly improved the communication between energy companies and the end user. The days of receiving an unexpected bill have gone for those who have a tracker that monitors their usage to the minute. While there isn’t the same need for water companies to implement smart metering in the same manner, the idea of providing a customer-first solution and building the vision from there rings true.


The transformation process

Aside from the physical transformation projects that need to be reviewed Nick and Richard discuss the people management side of things, specifically regarding stakeholder management and getting a collective agreement on the best approach.

When embarking on a transformation, it’s essential for the business and project stakeholders to have a clear understanding of their end point. While it’s often the case that the stakeholders will have differing wants, needs, and concerns based on their positions in the business, Nick talks about the value a strong programme lead can bring when engaging them. Oftentimes, people see a project through the lens of their department, so when they’re asked to review a supplier or proposition it can be difficult to ensure everyone’s concerns are met. Listening to what these stakeholders have to say, whether this be a query or a suggestion, and articulating this back to the third party or project team is of paramount importance to get buy-in from all stakeholders and a unanimous decision on how to move forward. This, Nick says, is the difference between a good programme lead and an outstanding one.

For Nick, it’s normal to have opposing views during the selection cycle of any transformation project, but it’s about bringing all the right people together to provide that clarity of what is trying to be achieved. Presenting the opportunities in a way that suits a stakeholder's narrative of the project can turn them into big advocates for change – it’s all about communication and hearing people out.

Ultimately, the cost and time-saving benefits of digital technologies makes the investment case clear, but these benefits need to be accompanied by a cultural change across the company and supply chain that’s driven from the top to ensure everyone has confidence in the transformation.

Where to go from here

The future is digital, and it’s the only route left for water companies to balance profitability whilst being sustainable.

Companies who haven’t set up these data systems or standardised processes should consider doing so. It’ll make managing assets easier and reduce the risk of outages and failures, producing improved results for the future. This starts with listening to stakeholders and customers, receiving feedback, and knowing what services need to be provided to improve efficiency for all facets of the company.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the appetite for change, what people want to achieve, how quickly they want to achieve it, and most importantly, being brave enough to take the first step.

It was fascinating to get Nick’s insight on the impact that the water industry has on our everyday way of life and we’re grateful that he was able to share his unique perspective on the digitalisation of the industry. We’d like to thank him for his time.


If you liked what you heard, stay tuned – we’ve got more conversations with inspiring leaders planned for the future. To be the first to listen to our upcoming episodes, please subscribe to us via Apple Podcasts, SpotifyAnchor and Google.

9th November

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