by Edward Qualtrough

United Utilities CIO William Hewish interview – Automation for the people

Jun 12, 2018
IT Leadership Utilities

“Is there a story in there? I like the automation piece. That’s a bit of a passion at the moment, because I think it’s so important in the industry and it’s so important to us as a company and I do think that it will change the world.”

United Utilities CIO William Hewish is recalling the March 2017 PwC report ‘Will robots steal our jobs?’, which said that by 2030 some 30% of all roles in the UK will be at a high risk of automation.

The 2018 CIO 100 high-flyer remembers, correctly to the decimal point, how the water industry stood out more than any other UK industry, adding that even the sector’s own regulator OFWAT has described water companies as being an analogue industry in a digital world.

“The PwC report said that 62.6% of roles in the water industry are at a high risk of automation,” Hewish said. “And that’s higher than anybody else. That’s higher than manufacturing.”

The former Severn Trent Water CTO, and CIO at DeVere Group and London Scottish Bank, sees how automation is going to affect all areas of the FTSE 100 business – and having witnessed tens of thousands in manual hours saved believes one of the key benefits is enabling people to do more ‘value-add’ activities.

“Automation comes from automating the plant in the same way that you would automate a factory, and that’s where operations technology and the Internet of Things come into play,” he said. “But there’s also back-office automation. We’re on a programme right now of rolling out robotic process automation (RPA) and we’re taking tasks that are very manual, very people-intensive, and automating those using robots. That’s been really successful.”

Technology-driven transformation

RPA is one stream of a broader series of initiatives which Hewish said was part of a transformational business change being enabled by technology via mobile devices and new business apps.

“The vast majority of transformational change that’s been driven through the organisation has a major technology element to it,” he said. “One of the big programmes that we delivered through the year was the opportunity to put technology in the hands of a great swathe of the workforce that have never had any technology at all.

“It’s a technology-driven change. It changes the way people work.”

Reporting to the organisation’s COO, Hewish has a permanent team of 270 as well as more than 100 contractors in his remit. Joining the organisation as CIO in December 2012 and sitting on the executive leadership, he believes that the last 18 months have brought the biggest change to the industry since privatisation, with the largest amount of technology-driven change United Utilities has ever undertaken. He said that there had been a big impetus for change at United Utilities, with much of the drive coming from the highest levels of the organisation.

“Our Chief Executive has this vision of driving the company towards what he calls ‘systems thinking’,” Hewish said. “Systems thinking is about understanding the entire business from end to end and getting data and information from all of that, because that will drive you to make better decisions.”

Disruptive technologies

Behind automation and IoT lies analytics, according to Hewish, which he described as the “fastest-moving area of technology at the moment”.

“Because of the sheer amount of money going into that area, it’s an industry that is going to drive forward very quickly,” he said. “If you think how much information is coming back from sensors, people and the systems, then the analytics that sit behind that are going to be critical.”

The CIO expects to see some consolidation in the data vendor market, and said that he believes the artificial intelligence or machine learning decision-making capabilities are going to be one of the most disruptive areas for United Utilities.

In a sector where most employees need both of their hands to do their work, Hewish also mentioned voice assistants as potential game-changers – particularly when put alongside wearables, heads-up displays “and 5G, or whatever comes after 5G”.

Seed innovation

Hewish returns to RPA when discussing some of the innovation initiatives at United Utilities. Having “carved out some cost centre”, the CIO built a small seed funding pot to create the environment to try new things, and described the RPA experiment as “something I brought to the organisation that they never knew they wanted until it arrived”.

With a small team working with a lean agile mindset, they work on short-term programmes to try and develop a proof-of-concept and business case to solve some of the company’s problems. RPA was one of the small number of bets that is paying off – Hewish said that the company has automated well over 20,000 manual hours of work – along with trialling £20 Internet of Things devices to help engineers monitor the performance of critical assets using their mobile phones.

As demand has started to grow to automate processes, Hewish realised that ‘robotics-as-a-service’ was something that it would be beneficial to provide across United Utilities and created the ‘Head of Robots’ role, led by Genevieve Wallace Dean in a team of three which includes two robotics engineers and a more junior robot apprentice to cope with the pace of the work.

Indeed, United Utilities runs an award-winning apprenticeship programme – there are more than 100 in the business – and Hewish is adamant these programmes are somethings all organisations and CIOs should be investing in.

In IT Hewish says the numbers tend to be three or four per year, with seven in the team at the moment.

“The energy that comes from a new set of eyes and new people in the organisation looking at a problem that’s been there for some time and working out a different way of solving that problem is really good,” he said.


Developing a more diverse team with a broader spectrum of experiences, skills and viewpoints has also helped Hewish facilitate positive business change at United Utilities. The CIO said that the company has been vocal about wanting to improve the diversity of its workforce; unconscious bias training and other initiatives have been put in place across the company, while monitoring and measuring stats have provided transparency.

“It’s an age-old management technique, that if you measure something then you can start to invoke change,” he said.

Himself a mentor as a member of the 30% Club to improve the representation of women on boards, Hewish believes organisations need to take a “multi-pronged approach” to attracting and retaining the best people – and that the benefits are numerous.

“Trying to get your pipeline right, trying to make sure that the filter’s not wrong on the way in, and then trying to give opportunity. It becomes a bit of a groundswell; you get to a certain level and it starts to correct itself,” he said.

“You get different ideas, you get different dynamics within the teams which are more creative and bouncing ideas of each other because people are coming from different perspectives. You have to take this in the round with other diversity too. One of the challenges for utilities in general is age demographics.

“We tend to have an ageing workforce, so that’s another area where apprentices help us to change the mix of the workforce to be diverse from all angles.”


Of course security is as much a concern for Hewish as it is other CIOs in industries regulated or otherwise.

The organisation’s CISO reports to the finance director, who also oversees other governance areas like audit and risk; Hewish sees a sensible fit there with cyber security. As part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, Hewish is happy for the CISO to set the strategy and cover all the external facing responsibilities of interacting with government bodies and partner organisations.

“My role then is to deliver the security to that strategy,” Hewish said. “I would implement systems, and hire the people to manage those systems or have a third party that does that for me. The CISO monitors them.

“He’s not running the operation, he keeps distant from that in the same way that an auditor doesn’t run your operation, but they set the boundaries of where they expect things to land.

“It works well. He used to work in IT in the company so has a very good understanding of the teams, the people and how we work. And we kind of cover for each other.”

Hewish also described their recent contingency planning exercise for a major cyber attack which involved everybody in the organisation from the Chief Executive down. As well as being more confident than concerned about GDPR regulations, Hewish said that he had “been in the game too long” to say that any organisation was completely prepared.

“Would you ever say that you’re prepared until it actually happens? Let’s hope it never does.”