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Opinion: People and technology must work together

The idea of People vs Tech is outdated: People + Tech is the way forward, write Simon Parker and Roger Williams

By Simon Parker, Director of Wholesale Wastewater Services, Southern Water and Roger Williams, Egremont Group

There is little doubt that stringent cost cutting within our industry has led to some great advancements in the use of innovative technology and technical solutions. Efficiency within the sector has improved with increased automation, telemetry, and CBM. AI and Big Data are already having an impact and in the near future will undoubtedly change working practices beyond all recognition. So far, so good. But what about the people?

Due to the very nature of our industry, the vast number of installations, the different types of terrain and the impact of weather and environmental factors, a one size fits all solution to even the most basic problem is not going to work. Add to this the immense variety in age, condition and provenance of our equipment and you have a unique set of conditions that can change on a daily basis. This unpredictability gives rise to a scarcity of repeatable solutions meaning we must rely on the skills, good sense and intelligence of field staff to remain vigilant at all times.

Ours remains, at its heart, a craft industry.

The Perfect Storm

It is also an industry at a crucial turning point as we face a future with less certainty about the consistency of supply. This creates the need to be more economic with the management of water resources and protecting the environment, coupled with the need to build resilience in operating models and ensure service. Essentially this all hinges on harnessing the skills, talent and ingenuity of all our people.

After years of delayering and managing for cost, it is perhaps only recently that the value added to the business by the field staff is once again being recognised. Training has been paired back for current employees and we are also facing an “age cliff” as the last generation of staff holding critical network knowledge reaches retirement age.

Increasingly resilience will depend upon new configurations of people and technology. And getting the best out of the technology means ensuring that people – both management and field staff – are equipped to use it.

Back on the front-line

Creating strong front-line intelligence will be essential in this new environment; we need both coverage and insight. Good routines and standards as a foundation, with thought-through daily rounds and well-constructed site operating plans. But these mean little without staff who are alert and responsive, prepared to look and listen, enquire and anticipate. In other words, people who care.

Changes in technology and tools, and in permitting and regulation, means front-line staff need to be willing to learn and adapt. And willing to share their know-how and expertise.

We need effective training and information delivery systems. We also need to develop career paths for people who do not necessarily want to advance through the ranks. Above all, we need well-functioning line management, who actively create the conditions, and the space, for learning.

A New Way of Working - Lessons from Southern Water

In the last couple of years Southern Water has put operational performance at the top of its agenda, and has developed a new way of working with organisation support for front-line delivery efforts. This new way of working is centred around Organisation Capacity Management, in short, not overburdening the organisation with too many new ideas and initiatives, rather maintaining a steady course to more constant goals. At Southern Water it is demonstrated in the following ways:

  • Hub meetings – these have been established with all delivery teams. The meetings encourage all front-line staff to share, in a focused way, what is affecting performance and progress across the estate. These review meetings combine company reported data with what front-line staff are seeing, helping local area managers to make better informed decisions about what work to promote and what issues to escalate.
  • Pollutions forum - front-line managers present their analysis of the root causes of pollution contributing to any breach. The open forum focuses on learning and improvement and avoids blame. This has yielded valuable insight into what needs to be fixed as an organisation, particularly in the process domain.
  • Focusing on longer-term outcomes – by prioritising longer term outcomes teams are encouraged to share understanding and insight, both up and down the organisation, in order to promote learning and involvement. Pushing decision-making down the organisation improves engagement across the business and rolls back traditional ‘us’ and ‘them’ boundaries encouraging a one-team mindset.

Motivating Hidden Talent – The Power of the Operations Managers

Operations Managers are at the heart of many of these new ways of working, if our operators are the eyes and ears of our network, then our managers need to be good listeners. That is what good craft and stewardship is about. Nothing stems the flow of intelligence from the front-line more than the unwillingness to hear it, or the inability to move on it.

Moreover, operations managers are the primary force for the development of field capability. It doesn’t matter how effective your training delivery systems are; if operations managers are not routinely paying attention to information coming back from the field, supporting improvement and development, actively promoting teamwork and collaboration, then your organisation is on a back foot.

By creating a culture which allows Operations Managers to ask open questions, before a crisis occurs and the skills to draw out the insight from the field workers to get to a better answer, then you will create solutions the whole team can believe in. The last thing needed is a quick decision that brings on the next crisis.

The first thing managers need to do in chartering the new course is to rebuild trust and confidence in the work-force. That means being willing to engage in grown-up conversation about what is happening and why.

A Brighter Future

Technology needs to work hand in hand with our people, the industry is simply too nuanced for a total tech takeover. Data can inform decision making, but it will never replace a dedicated and motivated workforce.

Topic: Innovation , Skills & workforce
Tags: Southern Water , technology , skills

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