People key part of digitisation

South East Water has invested in intelligent technology to enhance its customer experience and optimise its water network operations. Andrew Forster-Knight is the General Manager of Digital Utility and understands the importance of this transformation.

South East Water has invested in intelligent technology to enhance its customer experience and optimise its water network operations. Andrew Forster-Knight is the General Manager of Digital Utility and understands the importance of this transformation.

South East Water has been rolling out digital water meters across its network since 2020. Over 80,000 have been installed, saving at least 600 megalitres of water that otherwise would have been wasted. This has left about $350 per quarter in each customer’s pocket.

These savings are at the heart of what Andrew Forster-Knight has worked to deliver as the General Manager of Digital Utility at South East Water. Having started his career at South East Water straight out of university as a chemical engineer, he transitioned into a process engineer, focusing on process control and optimisation.

“Once I was working with South East Water, I gravitated towards the areas where automation was happening in the business and got heavily involved in process automation and optimisation,” he said. “That took me down a technology path into operational technology. I rode a wave of sorts and got heavily involved in technology and digitisation, which has led me to where I am today.”

Forster-Knight works with emerging and cutting-edge Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and systems to drive innovative and technical solutions that change and improve business processes.

Every day, he needs to consider how new technology might impact the millions of customers across the network.

Customer trust is paramount

One of the most significant issues for water authorities is maintaining customer trust and a social license to operate. When investing in any new technology or undergoing any new transformation, Forster-Knight has understood the importance of the direct impact on customers.

“We must maintain the trust of our customers. To do that, we have to take them on the journey. We started with small-scale trials and pilots, which allowed us to test how we engaged with customers, what worked, what didn’t work, where they were getting messages, and explaining why. Once the customers see what we are doing and why, it’s much easier for them to understand. They can really see the short-, medium-, and long-term benefits,” said Forster-Knight

Developing a communication strategy with customers has been a fundamental part of the change management strategy. He acknowledged that bringing the South East Water team along was also critical.

“It cuts across so many parts of the business,” he said. “We had to create a change team specifically for this digital initiative. While we already have a change management team within the business, it was vital to have that in-depth, constant engagement across multiple areas, particularly when there are so many moving parts, and things could change quickly.”

Staff training by champions

Part of adapting to change was ensuring that the customer-facing side of the business understood what was happening, what was being provided to the customers, and how they could help.

“Initially, we created a dedicated team within our large customer contact centre while doing the small-scale trials and pilots,” said Forster-Knight. “We could triage all our digital metering-related questions to this team. That team was educated on what the customer was looking at and could see what the customer saw. As we rolled out more meters, we developed some subject matter experts within the team, who have become champions within the overall customer contact centre.”

Having done the hard yards early, these champions have assisted the rest of the customer contact centre with understanding what is happening with their customers. If a customer calls in, the entire team is prepared to look at the portal and see what the customer sees.

“These are conversations that we were unable to have with customers before. While it’s a work in progress, it’s been fantastic so far,” he said.

What South East Water has learned from digitising processes

Forster-Knight believes South East Water has learned a lot from its digital transformation. One thing that needs to be considered is the impact on legacy systems.

“We estimate that about 70 per cent of our systems were changed or touched by our digital transformation,” he said. “That’s a significant piece of work. It’s not as simple as installing a new piece of software because it impacts most of our systems.”

Preparing for the change management side of things is the other key learning from the digitisation project.

“It’s probably the number one learning in hindsight, in terms of how we’ve gone about our program. It’s not a project where you can infrequently engage your staff because things are moving and changing quickly. Even on a weekly basis, operations were changing. You need to have that constant change management in place,” said Forster-Knight.

It’s also about finding new ways to use data to enhance the customer experience and optimise the water network. As an organisation, South East Water had to adjust to accumulating vast volumes of data they had never dealt with before.

“There is exponentially more data than we were previously dealing with. The big question was, what are we going to do with it? How do we find the insights to change and improve the business? That’s the challenge.”

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