Mujib Lodhi, CIO, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission
As CIO of one of the country’s largest water utilities, the water sector carries special meaning for me. Having spent my childhood growing up in different countries, I can remember how important water is for enabling any sort of civilization to prosper. Accessibility was particularly important as to how advanced that civilized society might be able to grow. As a young boy I noted people having to walk as much as several miles to retrieve water with hand carried containers. To minimize trips, water was carefully rationed imprinting strong memories of how much we should appreciate water as an enabler of life.
Moving to modernized cities, it was amazing to see how much a mostly underground water infrastructure had depleted that appreciation among its populace. After generations where clean, fresh drinking water was always available by turning a knob it’s easy to see why we forget the immense value of water to our very existence.
This story has not only played itself out in the water sector, but in virtually every industry that relies on an infrastructure of assets to efficiently deliver their products or services to customers at market viable prices. The customer has lost sight of the value of that infrastructure for getting them the products they value the most. These infrastructures age and must be replenished at great cost which cannot always be passed on to a customer who is unaware of such an infrastructure’s existence.
As enterprise assets have grown in scope, mostly everyone agrees that automating the management of critical assets is a good idea and most organizations have already employed technology to assist in this endeavor.
A typical asset management system might access inventory and geo-locate assets, enable maintenance tickets for inspections, replacements and/or problem correction as well as insure the proper tools and skill sets are in place to be responsive to emergency and preventive maintenance issues. By themselves, they do little in support of the business beyond those basic functions even where significant business process improvements have been enabled.
"For the last 15 years, the focus was on investments in IT infrastructure. In the next 15 years it will be all about data analytics"
In asset intensive operations like the water sector, we must look beyond simply using technology to support such basic business functions. IT must be transformative and to be that, the business must be fully engaged as well. A fully engaged business is well aware of the value of going the digital enterprise route as long as the technology leadership has been successful at gaining and maintaining their trust for operating and managing those critical business systems.
The digital enterprise must not, however, focus on individual systems and their business impacts but more on how an integrated suite of technologies enables the business to resolve its strategic challenges. This requires a business focus with digital mindset where leadership does not necessarily arise from the CIO. The last 15 years the focus was on investment in IT infrastructure. The next 15 years will be all about data analytics.
In this post-PC inter-connected era, customers not only demand instantaneous responses but also instantaneous results. To get ahead of this demand we must work smarter by bringing science to the business enabling business leaders to make highly informed decisions through effective data analytics. Core business systems must become core components of an integrated suite of digital solutions that strategically connect all aspects of the business together including the customer. Innovation and advanced analytics are key elements to successfully achieving this lofty objective. Our General Manager/ CEO, Carla A. Reid recognizes this and has taken the industry lead in establishing a new office called WSSCStat dedicated to insuring the business takes full advantage of analytics programs as they come online. “The water sector has become a complex business wrapped around a valuable asset. By strategically employing technology and advanced analytics we can simplify those complexities enabling us to better engage with and educate our customers and stakeholders as well as continue to maintain our leadership role in the sector on a global scale.”
We are close to having transformed our business to digital where asset management is a key foundational element. Going forward, assets can be key data feeds into advanced and predictive big data analytics programs. Done properly, IT can become a recognized partner able to create new business value rather than the traditional support role it still plays at many organizations.
Additionally, we have engaged the customer using mobile apps enabling them to not only transact business with their water utility but to play a significant role in improving internal operational efficiencies. At 1.8 million people, they have become our eyes and ears for monitoring potential problems over our 1000 square mile territory. Financial impacts of aging infrastructure repair and replacement are being significantly reduced using systems of shared data for collaborative efforts on public infrastructure with state, city and local agencies, fire departments, private developers, electric utilities and other responsible parties who might coordinate work efforts to combine both cost and impact on public right of ways. Using mobile technologies, our field service workers can receive and update information and interact directly with customers and back end operations in real time.
Such innovations have improved data quality and created near real time data streams making for a more powerful advanced and predictive analytics program that promises to create substantial new business value as we move forward. Thomas J. Street, our Deputy General Manager for Administration agrees: “By employing innovation and analytics into our strategic business systems we are taking the lead on becoming the world’s first real-time smart utility. This not only creates new business value for meeting our core strategic objectives but enables an entrepreneurial opportunity to expand that value paradigm throughout the industry.”
In summary, to succeed in this transformative role, IT must:
• Stabilize fundamental technology infrastructure
• Gain the trust of its business partners
• Look at the world outside-in concentrating on business opportunities and adapting technology as appropriate
And finally, make the leap into the world of the unexplored looking beyond conventional approaches.