Tech Leader Profile: leading utilities IT strategy as CIO of Northumbrian Water

Nigel Watson, CIO of Northumbrian Water, spoke to Information Age about how he ensures tech leadership success in the utilities space

As CIO of UK utility Northumbrian Water, Nigel Watson has needed to change tech models throughout the organisation in line with evolving customer demands, which include communication over multiple channels.

This has led to a customer experience transformation project being undertaken with the help of Genesys, which demonstrates the possibilities of innovation and what can happen in a highly risk averse utilities space.

In this Q&A, Watson reveals his keys to success as a utilities CIO, the main challenges he faced, and shares advice for future tech leaders.

What is the role of the CIO?

As part of our focus on tech leadership this month, we explore what the role of the chief information officer (CIO) entails in tech. Read here

How do you go about communicating your tech vision to the organisation, and ensuring that the whole workforce is on board?

The first thing is to make sure that the message is clear, understandable and actionable. I need to understand all of the different roles that the workforce are doing, and make the vision and message relevant to them. We use a variety of comms channels and media to do this, including video and audio, such as podcasts, to help cater for a diversity of learning styles within the business.

It’s important to make the message memorable. One example we ran was the idea that ‘passwords are like underpants’ – they should be changed frequently, and you shouldn’t share them. These kinds of messages stick in people’s minds, and we make sure to repeat them. I feel there’s a high value in repetition. You may sometimes think ‘I’ve been saying this too much’, but with the number of messages going out to employees at any one time, and the limited amount of time they have to absorb them, repetition is key.

What are the most important skills that are needed to carry out your role effectively?

First and foremost, a successful CIO must have a growth mindset. I’m learning every day and all of the time. If I go a day without learning something, that’s when it’s time to worry.

I’m always encouraging my team to learn by doing. The water sector is very risk-averse, and rightly so in some key areas, but there are other parts of our business where we’re learning to take more risks through trying new approaches. We’ll analyse what went well, what didn’t go well, and constantly improve and innovate. This approach helps us progress and has delivered great results for us.

A focus on people would be another important attribute. As you progress throughout your career, achievements will commonly focus on tasks completed, but as a tech leader, you need to switch that. Of course, you can’t ignore tasks to be done as a CIO, but you need to prioritise people. For me, the key thing is to make sure that I have the right people in the right roles who all completely understand the objectives. From there, my job is to remove the barriers that are in their way.

Thirdly, you need that right blend of patience and impatience. My role is to be impatient in a sense, to get things done and move the organisation towards our goal of becoming the most digital water company in the world.

But I’ve also had to learn to be more patient in this sector over the past seven years. You can’t see new initiatives through without putting the time into making them work. If you’re starting a three-year programme then it’s important to understand it will probably take you a further three years to embed it into your organisation, being comfortable with that is key.

Information Age’s guide to tech leadership roles

Our guide to tech leadership roles will explore four of the most prominent positions: the chief technology officer (CTO), chief information officer (CIO), chief data officer (CDO), and chief product officer (CPO). Read here

What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your role?

The breadth of responsibilities that come with working for a water company is the biggest challenge for me. I’ve had the fortune of working for Vodafone, Microsoft and GE Capital, and in those organisations, you may have 10 to 12 key measures to consider as part of your role. In a water company, we have around 40.

Managing floods, leaks, sewers, networks, water pollution and the expectations of millions of customers– just to name a few!

This is the biggest test I’ve had as a CIO, because it’s a real challenge to just focus – you can’t man mark 40 different responsibilities all of the time!

You need to filter that down and understand the changes you can make to influence the most important measures.

What advice would you give to other tech leaders in your position, in terms of achieving success?

Make sure you understand the context in which you’re making decisions.

Pre-pandemic, I spent a lot of time out in the field, spending time reading meters, or speaking with employees at water production and waste treatment sites. This allowed me to understand what technologies are enabling and frustrating them, and how to make their lives better. That was key to finding out the strengths and weaknesses of department functions.

Secondly, build a great network. I spend quite a lot of my time cultivating my network inside and outside the business, making sure I have good relationships at all levels and that we’re all transparent about any challenges we face. We work hard at being good customers, as well as building a good customer experience. A strong network is invaluable for whenever you need help.

The last thing was something I learned far too late in my career: there’s power in a half-baked idea. I grew up as a developer and it is really important to make sure that your code is robust, that it can handle anything that is thrown at it. This trait stayed with me for a while, but I learned the power of the half-baked idea. I found that half-baked ideas aren’t useful, but this way of thinking changed when I came into a leadership role. Our Innovation Festival is prime example. I had the half-baked idea of using a festival template, including music, yoga, poetry etc and turning it into a vehicle to help solve key societal problems. Five years, and festivals, later and thanks to the input and collaboration from lots of amazing people it’s a global hit that’s recognised as key event in the innovation calendar.

Putting a half-baked idea on the table can be scary because people may poke holes in it. However, it allows people in. It allows them to add to the kernel of the idea and feel some ownership for it. There’s real power in that.

I learned the importance of this around five years ago, and I wish I’d learned it 20 years ago.

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.