Just over a year ago, Rebecca Chenery moved from head of business transformation into the inaugural chief digital officer role at Watercare.
Watercare, is New Zealand’s largest company in the water and wastewater industry, supplying around 360 million litres of water to Auckland every day.
As CDO, Chenery is the executive accountable to the CEO and to the board for setting up the Strategic Transformation Programme (STP) and for its success.
The STP is a multi-year business and digital transformation programme that is required to achieve Watercare’s mission and vision.
“We are evolving our engineering DNA to become truly customer centric in our culture, in how technology enables our people to deliver great outcomes for the people of Auckland,” says Chenery.
Implementing digital and ‘smart’ technologies are key components of the programme.
But Chenery explains the STP is not a technology-led exercise.
“The programme is about people – our workforce and our customers,” she says. “Enhancing our capabilities and processes and transforming our culture to better serve our customers and manage our assets are our key focus areas.”
Chenery says Watercare is now in the midst of the delivery phase for STP, providing solutions across their core business areas – operations, customer and planning and construction.
We want to provide one-click frictionless services for our customers, allowing customers to do everything for themselves, wherever they are, in a single interaction, she says.
Together with this is building a future-fit workforce with
the right skills and attitudes to flex to these new demands. “Our workforce aspiration is that every employee has the right tools, the best processes and can make insight-informed, fact-based decisions with confidence.”
Chenery says Watercare is working to use data as an asset. “We have an incredibly rich array of data at our fingertips that we need to better harness to run our asset base of $10 billion and service our customer base of 444,000 Aucklanders.
The programme also aims to increase Watercare’s organisation agility. “Building on our proud DNA of engineering and capital projects, Watercare now also needs to create a culture and operating model of customer centricity, flexibility and adaptability to change.
“Increasing efficiency and productivity and decreasing business risk are front of mind and underpin the transformation roadmap,” she says.
She explains how STP differs from business transformation programmes the Auckland Council-owned organisation has implemented.
We initially mapped our customer and workforce journeys using human-centred design approaches, says Chenery.
“This was a real tipping point for the transformation, getting 60 influential and energetic people from around the business engaged in shaping these two critical areas. We made a decision from the start that our vision and programme would be experience-based.
“After all, we exist for our customers, our workforce exists to serve our customers well, and our management and leadership teams exist to support our workforce. It’s a simple concept but often forgotten. This was a tremendous way to gain real buy-into the vision and purpose of what we were setting out to do.”
There was a deep focus on skills and culture. “This a continuous and intensive learning programme,” she says.
She says organisational agility, design thinking, user experience, working in cross-functional teams and change leadership have all been massive learning curves for Watercare people.
“We’ve found that significant investment in this learning pays off – improvements in pace, teamwork, quality and value delivery are visible every week,” she says.
“There has been a huge positive shift in these new ‘digital’ skills since we started.”
The programmes are being organised and delivered using an approach that harnesses business agility, early value delivery and the ability to change course based on customer, user and stakeholder feedback.
She says more complex digital solutions that need to adapt over time based on learning and feedback are being delivered using an agile methodology.
The programme is being delivered through cross-functional teams who have clear accountabilities, clear deliverables and work in short time-boxed phases (‘sprints’) to deliver incremental value to customers and to our business, she adds.
She says the STP is already implementing programmes using AI, machine learning, IoT and robotic process automation.
“We are changing Watercare’s culture towards agility and a human-centred design mindset, and breaking down decades-old silos by introducing cross-functional team working for our customers. All of this is achieving increasing efficiencies for Watercare to do more with less,” she states.
She says the significant changes to their operating model meant establishing new customer and digital business functions.
The customer function exists to drive the experience and service component of the transformation, ensuring the needed levers for company-wide customer centric change are identified and in place for customer-related shifts to be significant and sustainable.
The digital function takes the legacy IT function and combines it with the STP to form a team that focuses on innovation, advanced digital technology, data and analytics, and on providing reliable core systems operations, she explains.
The CDO’s ally: Chief people officer
Chenery reports to the CEO and is part of the executive team. “I am collaborating on a daily basis with my peers to ensure digital is meeting their needs as a critical customer and business enabler.
Every two weeks we meet at STP Steering and bring healthy challenge and debate to the table about how the transformation programme is delivering value to their areas of the business, she says.
Transparency and measurement of value is critically important, and the transformation programme works in collaboration with the chiefs and senior leaders to ensure the appropriate levels of focus.
We hold regular one on one meetings “to remove the boulders and challenges impeding delivery”.
A prime example of this is her close collaboration with the chief people officer.
“We can’t transform our customer experience without truly enabling our own staff. So, we’ve embarked on transforming the people (HR) function through automating their low value and manual transactions,” says Chenery.
She says the digital team is working with their HR business partners to build employee lifecycle journey maps, and developing their people strategies to ensure new ways of working like continuous change and agility are being spread wider through how the people function works across the business.
“The chief people officer and I oversee these initiatives jointly and ensure that they have the right level of sponsorship and support to get our team in behind it and working together.”
She says the establishment of the new digital function requires a sharp focus on talent growth and management.
“We’ve changed our recruitment and development practices to focus relentlessly on cultural fit and diversity of thought,” says Chenery.
She says half of the digital leadership team (head of digital operations and head of analytics and insights) are new hires. This means their team will have strong and capable senior mentors who will bring different experiences and cross-industry perspectives.
She says training on skills that focus on agility and customer centred design is being offers across the board. More than a third of Watercare’s workforce have already undertaken the training driven by the digital team.
“We recognise that if cultural change happens only in the transformation programme, the rest of the business will be left behind,” she says.
“We’ve built our own in-house courses on agility, product ownership, and design thinking and offer these courses to all business units within Watercare. About half of participants have come from finance, human resources, and operations functions.”
She says the transformation and digital teams are also attending training on resilience – particularly the leadership aspects of creating high performing teams during times of change.
Chenery says a major programme last year was Watercare’s first Digital Day. The event was design to inspire and educate Watercare people about “the art of the possible”, focusing on innovation and digital technology, says Chenery.
A hologram of their CEO greeted people as they entered the room, which was filled with robots, virtual reality, drones, chatbots.
Every six weeks, Watercare holds a showcase, where all staff can hear about what the 13 cross-functional squads have delivered, and the benefits and lessons learned from the projects.
There are also formal change impact and readiness assessments, which involve two-way engagement and feedback with key stakeholders, before every go-live [event].
“We are regularly surveying the ‘change engagement and readiness’ of our target end users both before and after we implement new technology and/or processes,” she adds.
No rulebook for digital transformation
Chenery says her experience as a CDO comes with a strong awareness that the role is about people, and ensuring they have the support needed as the organisation adopts digital technologies and changes the way they operate.
“Whether it’s a delayed website release, an AI prototype that could have gone better, or a legacy team struggling to adopt new modern working practices, when traced to the root cause, it always comes down to people,” she says.
“Through the lessons of setting up the transformation programme, establishing and maturing the new digital function, and representing the innovation and technology side of Auckland’s lifeline utility, I’ve learned several lessons,” says Chenery.
Don’t follow a rulebook and instead do what’s right for our organisation and culture. Our own organisational context and culture is the most important consideration for what we do and the approach we take. Frameworks and structure are helpful to get started, but sooner rather than later we needed to start trusting ‘what’s right’ for our people to get the work done. Nobody can tell us how to do this.
Manage and lead the ‘people’ side of change carefully. Historically we’ve been caught out by focusing on functional and technical aspects. This is a recipe for failure. Overdoing communications, instilling radical transparency about why things are done and when they will be done, and encouraging change leadership from everyone, not just the top layers of management, are all practices we instil across our teams whilst doing the work.
Don’t underestimate the need to invest in new skills and in deliberately creating the right environment and culture for growth and innovation. I’ve found that having the right physical space to collaborate is a huge success factor. Building the new leadership skills – for us, product ownership was brand new to Watercare – is a big undertaking that we don’t take lightly. Continuous investment in this area is critical.
Engage the right partners from the start but we’ve found that we’ve needed to lead our own transformation. Trying to DIY critical specialty areas just doesn’t work, so of course you need to buy that in. But maintaining genuine leadership accountability for the transformation right up at the executive level is a big success factor for us.
Measure the most important things to keep the transformation on track. Sure, business benefits metrics are hugely important and this measurement must be done. But we also measure the people and cultural factors that are shown to produce results – trust, safety in teams, dependability, role clarity. We measure these ‘people factors’ continuously as we know it’s these dynamics that can trip us up if left unnoticed.