Version of this article previously published in the Water New Zealand Journal (Sep/Oct 2019 issue).

The digital revolution has promised to make our jobs easier through shiny new technologies, or even to automate our work with artificial intelligence. 

In the water sector, asset management tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated; smart meters offer more usage data than we have had before, while Building Information Management (BIM) has the potential to transform the way we build and operate assets.

And yet, in reality, our jobs are getting busier and busier as we have to manage more and more systems and meet increasingly complex compliance and reporting requirements. We need to take a smarter approach if we are going to realise the full benefits of digital technologies.

Drowning in the digital deluge

Despite the progress that has been made in digital technologies over the last decades, many common problems continue to persist: 

Too much data; not enough information

Although we now have more data than ever before, this does not always mean that we have the information we need to make informed decisions. In our rush to record data, we can lose track of its purpose and how we need to aggregate and analyse the data to make it meaningful. Data we have might be inaccurate, eroding the trust we have in it. 

Systems are complex for users

Our teams bear the burden of using the digital technologies we adopt, which require training and ongoing support. When these systems are cumbersome to use, this burden is increased.

Propagation of technologies

Research has shown that people use an average of 56 different apps and websites each day. 

To address these issues and make digital technologies work for us, we should consider the following approaches while implementing digital solutions:

1. Have a clear purpose

Every digital solution must offer a clear business value, whether it is improved efficiency and effectiveness or managing risk and compliance. 

Some will promise that digital technology can do anything (for a price!), but it certainly cannot do everything. Information Technology (IT) projects commonly fail when an unclear scope is allowed to grow to an unmanageable size.  So while it may be tempting to use an upgrade to your financial systems to improve your asset management solution, it may be better to plan this as a separate initiative.
Clarity about the value being delivered will help to define the scope of a digital initiative. Tools like Investment Logic Maps can help to define problems, benefits, responses and solutions. 

2. Put people at the centre

A digital solution is a combination of technology, processes and people. Once we know what value a digital initiative will deliver, we can identify the people who will be involved. Some of these people will be direct users of the system, while others may benefit indirectly, for example, through receiving new reports. 

Additional stakeholders may be responsible for funding the solution or continuing to maintain it. All of these people need to be engaged in a successful digital initiative, from initial consultation, defining requirements, design, training and support. Digital solutions should allow our teams to do things more easily, but only if we bring them along on the journey.

3. Make incremental progress

Most organisations already have several major business digital systems in place, e.g. financial management, customers relationship management (CRM), asset management, human resources and document management. Future benefits can be gained through smaller incremental initiatives. 

Low-code application development platforms like Microsoft PowerApps and QuickBase and other cloud services are making it easier to build, test and implement new solutions. Data visualisation and analysis tools like Power BI and Tableau allow us to generate new insights and reports from existing data and systems. 

Automation tools like Microsoft Flow, Zapier and FME can integrate these systems and automate tasks. Initiatives to support users, improve data quality and streamline business processes can add as much value as new technologies.

If this progress is made with a holistic, systematic view, initiatives can incrementally build on one another. Leveraging existing technologies, applying lessons about what works and not re-inventing the wheel can lead to significant improvements over time.

Your ongoing digital evolution

Despite what technology vendors may have told you, there is no single solution to all of your problems. But there are ways we can work smarter, through having a clear purpose, keeping our people in mind and looking for incremental value.  

By bringing together water experts who understand how water service organisations operate, with digital experts who know what is technologically possible, there are many more benefits we can realise.