The Ultimate Guide to Writing Your Utility’s Digital Playbook

The water industry is awash with tech buzzwords. Digital twin, smart water, biosensors, IoT, artificial intelligence. They all sound great. But for most utilities, these technologies are so far from the present reality that they sound more like a distraction than a realistic goal.

“I’m using a software system that was built in 1991, and you want to talk to me about smart water and biosensors?”

“We don’t have the money or the time to experiment with this right now.”

“We’ve been burned by Cisco before—how do we know this will be different?”

These common frustrations reflect two challenging realities in the world of water today:

  • On one hand, the world of work has changed, and so have the challenges facing the industry. But many utilities are making do with outdated, offline technology, and threadbare budgets.

  • Meanwhile, major technology providers selling data warehousing projects have missed the boat on water. They promised the moon and then failed to deliver. But the costs of those projects are permanently stained on the balance sheet. 

It’s time for a new approach.

You need a systematic way to tackle digital transformation in bite-sized chunks in a way that works for your organization. What you need is a digital playbook

In this guide, we’ll show you how to write your digital strategy and drive buy-in with a step-by-step approach.

Why you need a digital playbook

Future proofing your organization

Change is coming fast and furious. 

About a third of the water workforce will retire in the next few years. Much of the knowledge and processes we rely on are currently trapped in those workers’ desk drawers, corkboards, spreadsheets—or worse, their heads.

Meanwhile, the nature of the work is getting more complex: regulations are more stringent, and weather patterns are less predictable. 

You can’t afford to work with tech that doesn’t work.

Finding the middle ground

Moving closer to the water utility of the future doesn’t involve moving a massive boulder. Instead, it happens brick-by-brick

There is a middle ground between the world of offline spreadsheets and the false promise of enterprise-scale data warehousing. Cloud-based tools can help bring mission-critical data out of Excel and into powerful dashboards, so your organization can act on those insights sooner.

How digital transformation happens

Tying innovation to organizational goals

Digital transformation without North Star goals will just result in more of the same. The key is to ensure your investments are being made with vision and purpose

All utilities share a universal goal: delivering clean and safe water. To do that today, and for generations to come, most utilities are looking to:

  • Capture efficiency gains to do more with less

  • Identify new opportunities for revenue capture

  • Engage the community 

  • Deliver excellent customer service

That means that any digital transformation project that’s worth its salt should tackle these challenges in some way or another.

Building blocks of change

There’s a reason that so many tech overhauls have failed: change is hard. And for that same reason, you can’t expect to leap from an Excel spreadsheet to AI-driven decision making overnight. To maximize benefit while minimizing disruption, you’ll need to approach transformation in stages. 

One framework we’ve found useful for thinking about this is the Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom (DIKW) Pyramid.

The DIKW Pyramid

The idea here is that you can’t move up the pyramid before laying the foundation—and the bedrock of every good digital strategy is data.

Data 

Data is the lifeblood of our connected world, increasingly defining how our industry plans, understands, and executes projects.
If you’re just starting to experiment with digital transformation, removing data from silos and making it more accessible to everyone in your organization—i.e. freeing it from the C-drive or the desk drawer—should be the target.
It’s important to keep in mind as well that more data isn’t necessarily better. It might be that what your organization actually needs most is a data diet, i.e. a sustained effort to become more specific and intentional with the data you do collect.

Information

Of course, data is meaningless without context. 
For example, let’s say you’ve just spent the last few weeks collecting cost data. Without labels—i.e. ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ each cost is occurring—that data is just a series of numbers: “$5,876.46,” “$447.64,” “$77.89.”
To make data work for us, we need to ask it questions. And when that happens, data becomes information. It starts to tell us things about our organization that we didn’t know before—like which parts of the business are the most or least expensive to operate.

Knowledge and Wisdom

For that information to become something we can act on, we need to know why and how those things are happening. When we ask those questions, information turns into knowledge and wisdom.
In the water world, this part of the DIKW pyramid is where we’ll be able to use things like artificial intelligence and digital twins to make predictions. But that’s a bit beyond the scope of this guide: we’re focused on utilities that are just starting to grapple with data and how best to start metabolizing it.

The important thing to remember here is that the tools you use to make decisions about your organization—whether management tools, artificial intelligence, etc.—are only as good as the data and information you feed into them.

You can’t jump from “data” to “wisdom” overnight. But by asking the right questions and being intentional with the data collected, you can make steady incremental progress towards that goal.

Executing the Playbook: Procurement

We’ve already mentioned how digital transformation is best handled in small, easy to manage, confidence-boosting chunks, rather than messy system-wide overhauls. 

Incremental change is king, and that applies to procurement and implementation, too.

But if multi-year tech installs aren’t the way to go, what’s the alternative? If you ask us, it’s pilots.

Pilots 101

Pilots have become the new gold standard for tech acquisition within municipal utilities because they’re lower risk, more manageable, and can help drive buy-in among teams that are resistant to sweeping changes.

To run a pilot, you’ll need to define project goals, involve key internal stakeholders, and pick a vendor that meets your specific needs and your budget.

Pilots don’t succeed every time—in fact, many of them won’t. Some utilities set themselves a goal of a 40% success rate for pilots. However high you do set the bar, the point is to not set it too high. 

Keep in mind that many utilities today have dedicated innovation budgets, and smaller scale pilots may run below the RFP thresholds, which makes it easier to get up and running quickly.

Picking a vendor: a checklist

With your game-plan set, the final step is to select vendors to work with.

Just as there is no one single perfect vendor for any one single utility, there is no universal rule for picking a vendor. This checklist, however, comes pretty close:

1. They understand the problem you’re trying to solve A good vendor should focus on your objectives, will spend time listening to your problems, and will demonstrate that they understand your particular needs. A bad vendor will spend more time talking about their specific product’s features, and will leave you feeling like they don’t really “get it.”

2. Selling a tool tailored to your utility’s needs One size does not fit all. Will configuring a tool for your needs end up costing more than the tool itself? When exploring vendors, don’t shy away from asking tough and pointed questions: that will help you determine whether the vendor really knows how to cater to a utility like yours.

3. Has a partnership mindset  Vendor support should be ongoing, not just at the time of install. It should feel like your vendor is on your side, that they’re available to help you when you need it—and not like they’re just trying to hand off responsibility and move on to the next project. 

4. Integrates with parallel systems 

New technology should reduce data silos, not create new ones. If it feels like a particular tool or implementation might be creating more problems than it’s solving, your vendor might not actually understand what your organization needs.

5. Searches for utility-wide benefits Digital initiatives should drive cross-departmental collaboration. Vendors should understand this and should be proactively looking for and suggesting opportunities, rather than just waiting for you to do so.

Conclusion

Although digital transformation represents an exciting opportunity for water utilities, implementing new processes and technologies takes time, money, and one resource that is particularly difficult to get back once you lose it: the trust of your team members. 

Instead of pursuing expensive and demoralizing data warehousing projects, utilities are far better off taking a pragmatic, gradual approach to achieving their smart water goals. Cloud-based solutions tailored to utilities’ needs make this new approach possible.  

With a digital playbook to guide your decisions, you can start driving change right now, not ten years from now.