5 ways the water industry can stay ahead of digital disruption

Posted 27 March 2017

Ozwater'17 articles
What do telcos, media, technology and radio all have in common? They are all traditional industries that have faced massive digital disruption in the past few years.
Digital disruption
They are also Jane Huxley’s bread and butter. Up until recently, Huxley worked as the managing director for Pandora Australia and New Zealand and was responsible for bringing the streaming radio service to ANZ. However, she has a long pedigree of helping businesses confront digital disruption. 

“I would say that I’m drawn to very traditional industries that are struggling with the transition to the digital age,” Huxley said.

This attraction is one reason she is looking forward to speaking with an audience of water industry professionals during her keynote speech at the upcoming Ozwater’17 conference in Sydney

“Disruption is inevitable, and you have to find ways of dealing with change – whether that’s in utilities, infrastructure, policy, whatever. If your business environment is changing, you have two choices: either find a new one to work in, or go find where it’s moved to. If you don’t, you won’t survive.”

Here’s her advice for how the water industry can stay on the front foot and avoid the mistakes of other disrupted industries.  

1. Make sure you have the right people on your team.
“When an organisation or industry sees themselves being disrupted, panic sets in and the basics go out the window; but it’s my belief that innovation and transformation are fundamentally about people,” Huxley said. 

A lot of companies get distracted by process or competition, and what happens is they forget that the only way to innovate is to have the right people doing what they do best. 

Huxley said it’s great to bring in ‘innovation experts’ and the like, but don’t do it at the expense of employees who are capable of innovating as well.

“There are people inside your organisation who have subject-matter expertise, who have been there for a while and who know how to get stuff done. They’re the ones you need to empower.”

2. Get out of your comfort zone and test the waters.
There is no innovation without an element of risk, but Huxley said there are ways to take calculated risks that won’t jeopardise your entire operation. 

The past few years have seen the emergence of incubators – such as Slingshot Academy – that pair organisations with startups to help them experiment and trial innovations without putting up large amounts of capital or disrupting other operations. 

“There are places you can go now to ask for help and expertise in a safe environment. All this can be done in a risk-mitigated way.” 

3. Always think one step ahead.
Huxley said that many organisations, especially ones operating in regulated environments or ones that are seen as necessary services (ie water), get too comfortable. And this means they don’t realise they’ve been disrupted until it’s too late. 

“Unfortunately, that ‘ah-ha’ moment sometimes comes too late – when customers have left, when the supply chain has been disrupted or when profit margins are declining; that’s where disruptors will hit you first and hardest,” she said. 

To anticipate innovations and disruptions, Huxley recommended following global trends.

“We’re lucky because we are a bit behind here in Australia, so we can see what is happening elsewhere and then brace ourselves for what’s coming,” she said.

“Prepare for the worst, and be paranoid. Think about what will happen when a disruptor gets disrupted, and then use that as your leapfrog strategy to stay ahead.”

4. Put the customer at the centre.
“Retention is the new acquisition. It’s much cheaper to retain a customer than it is to try and acquire a new one,” Huxley said. 

“At the end of the day, the only thing that will save you is your relationship with your consumers, so shore up your customer base like nobody’s business. Don’t wait until your company is threatened to let people know you appreciate them. People see right through that, and it ends up feeling inauthentic.” 

A good place to start is learning as much as possible about who your customers are and what they want from their water services. One tool is data, which allows utilities and other water industry organisations to segment customer bases and track behaviours to better learn who the end user is.

But if you really want to get inside the minds of customers, Huxley said the solution is simple: just ask. 

“I think the biggest danger is that companies assume they know what people want, but the community will tell you what they want. There’s an answer to everything, and that’s what water utilities should be empowering their employees to figure out.”

5. Strike a balance between substance and flash. 
It’s hard to not be distracted by the newest shiny thing promising results, but Huxley said you can’t have all flash and no substance. 

“Don’t get distracted by one or the other. You can’t go all basics and no flash, or vice versa,” she said.  

“Customers and employees like to feel that they are working with companies that are doing interesting and innovative things, but you also need to have a strong foundation of leadership and business best practice.”

So by all means, incorporate gamification or VR into your business. Just make sure that it serves a purpose and isn’t just for show. 

Jane Huxley will reveal how the water industry can thrive through disruption at the upcoming Ozwater’17 conference in Sydney. To see the full list of keynote speakers and register, click here