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Six CIO tips for business innovation with data

First Utility CIO Bill Wilkins shares his advice for IT leaders about how to run data projects to deliver real business benefits

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First Utility CIO Bill Wilkins has a job that relies on data. The company started as a small, entrepreneurial business in 2008 and experienced rapid growth as a pioneer in smart meters. By 2014, the firm had become the seventh-largest energy supplier in the UK, with over a million customers and a market share of 2%.

“Because of the company's rapid growth, every year has been different,” says Wilkins.

The firm is now scaling up for further growth through a focus on its digital platform. Wilkins, who joined First Utility full-time in 2010 after spells with Sun Microsystems and SeeBeyond, is drawing on his experience to push a data-led process of innovation.

Wilkins offers six best-practice tips for other CIOs from his experiences of running data projects, covering areas such as organisational culture, external partnership and continuous innovation.

1. Create a customer-driven approach to data analytics

Wilkins says First Utility benefits from access to a huge data asset that it uses in three key ways. First, the business runs a number of information-led initiatives to boost customer engagement. “We are, essentially, a retailer and we want to have long-term, valuable relationships with our clients,” he says.

The second way First Utility uses data is for optimisation. “Information helps us to understand what processes work, which processes are causing us problems and how we can use our experience around those processes to make the business better,” says Wilkins.

The third way the firm uses information is strategically, says Wilkins. “Now we’ve built a platform, we want to know our technology is working and where the business can use systems and services to develop and grow,” he adds. “It’s all about making the most of data to find new opportunities and to market to new sets of customers.”

Wilkins says the firm’s customer-driven approach goes further – other external stakeholders are included, too. “From a very early stage of operation, the firm – because of its strong focus on data – has had access to detailed market information,” he says.

“It was not until the IT team built an application on top of that data that a wide base of users started making the most of our knowledge. The awareness within our organisation about how competitive we are in the marketplace is now much clearer because we created a visual representation of data for our employees.”

2. Get your organisational structure right

Wilkins says that, while his firm’s use of data is very broad, he can benefit from a tight organisational set-up. “We have the advantage of still being focused as an organisation, despite our rapid growth,” he says.

Take information management, for example. Here Wilkins benefits from access to a single data team. “If you go into many other billion-pound businesses, you'd have a much more established set of functions with their own silos of data,” he says.

“We’ve managed to retain a coherent organisational structure. We also have a central repository for data and that represents a huge advantage, because it means we can look at information and synthesise it in many different ways.”

Wilkins says he has strived to achieve an integrated approach to data, both in terms of human skills and technical resources. One key factor is that he combined the role of head of enterprise architecture with that of data delivery at a very early stage of his tenure as CIO.

This single manager has design authority for data inputs, but also needs to drive insight from the information. “In a period of rapid growth and innovation, we can use this integrated approach to make sure our aims and objectives are still as aligned as they possibly can be,” he says.

3. Look to evolve, rather than to keep starting afresh

Wilkins says that from the start, the investors at First Utility recognised that the company would use technology to create a competitive differentiation. The firm wanted to deliver smart, rather than standard, energy and it spent a lot of time building an end-to-end infrastructure.

“At the time, you couldn't get a smart gas meter,” he says. “The business ended up building its own hardware to measure volume and send the data back to the office. The senior executives got involved in a lot of low-level, but clever, technology to get their smart proposition set up.”

Bill Wilkins, First Utility

"Work with a partner, learn from their experience, innovate for your customers and differentiate from your competitors"

Bill Wilkins, First Utility

On joining the business, Wilkins was able to inherit this foundation work. The company had already solved the problem of taking heterogeneous data and creating a normalised, standard view of information that worked in a billing system. The problem, however, was that the system did not scale.

The answer to that challenge, says Wilkins, was to modify the foundation, which he says represents key advice to other CIOs facing a similar data conundrum. “What you have to do is to take what’s already there and look at ways to evolve that approach,” he says.

4. Partner with external specialists to build engagement

With the platform in place, Wilkins started to look at other ways to help First Utility develop its smart approach to energy provision. He realised there was a huge opportunity for using the firm’s half-hourly collected smart meter data to create a new form of engagement with customers.

“The call to action was that we realised we had this rich data set which contained lots of interesting information. What we had to do was to turn it into knowledge that could inform our customers about their energy use,” says Wilkins, who explains how the firm partnered initially with external specialist Opower to create its My Energy programme.

Read more about innovating with data

“That’s another tip from me – don’t try to build it all yourself,” he says. “Innovation happens in many places, so look for partners that can complement what you do. We worked with Opower, as the leading US player in energy analytics, and learnt from their knowledge and experience.”

First Utility then decided to bring the My Energy initiative back in-house, because it thought the US-centric platform was not necessarily the best way to serve its UK customer base. “Partnering allowed us to get a product out there and to learn from its use in the real world very quickly,” says Wilkins.

5. Use experience to build your own data platform

Knowledge from the first, externally developed iteration of My Energy proved essential as First Utility created its own version of the platform, which was launched at the end of 2014. “For other CIOs, I would say the lesson is to work with a partner, learn from their experience, innovate for your customers and differentiate from your competitors,” says Wilkins.

To achieve this level of differentiation, Wilkins built a dedicated team of internal specialists. He initially thought First Utility would need to employ a broad range of analytical specialists, but quickly discovered that customer experience expertise would be more useful.

“As we started building out the My Energy platform, we realised we needed people who could translate the data into areas that customers would be keen to investigate and use,” says Wilkins. We inevitably spent much more time and money on the look and feel of the service and less on the data side.”

“We’ve learnt that the way you present information to different stakeholders is very important. Half-hourly updates have a very low value for consumers, but we’ve used My Energy to take that information and present it in a more informative manner for customers.”

6. Think in an entrepreneurial fashion and continue to innovate

As a smaller utility firm, First Utility must try to keep pace with larger competitors, but often with fewer resources, says Wilkins. He points to the firm’s mobile programme, which – when compared to the big budget spend of some competitors – was launched with the help of just four engineers in under a year.

One area of pioneering development is the firm’s partnership with Cosy, a Cambridge firm specialising in the development of smart heating systems. Wilkins says First Utility’s aim is to be in a position to offer the Cosy technology to all its customers by the end of the year.

“Cosy is all about bringing in a new data set concerning the heating characteristics of a house,” he says. “Customers get to control their heating from an app, and we get fine-grain information on their requirements, and the efficiency of their boiler and insulation. That information is then fed back into the My Energy platform.”

Wilkins says data becomes more valuable when it is weaved together and used for cross-purposes. As well as Cosy, First Utility is also set to launch a new Auto Read feature as part of its mobile app for customers who do not yet have smart meters. A UK first, the app uses the phone’s camera to take a snapshot of the meter and helps to create more accurate readings.

“Both innovations – Cosy and Auto Read – are concerned with how we can get better-quality data into our analytics engine,” he says. “Getting an accurate view of energy consumption is a challenge for utility firms. Unless you get it right, you start billing estimates, which isn't great for customers and doesn’t help create certainty in terms of revenue for the business.”

This was last published in October 2015

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