When the Web becomes a real utility

Being Web-enabled is one thing but keeping ahead of the game and introducing new aspects is another. Julia Vowler talked to a man...

Being Web-enabled is one thing but keeping ahead of the game and introducing new aspects is another. Julia Vowler talked to a man who urges constant re-evaluation

As the world goes Internet crazy, the idea of Web-enabling everything in sight is becoming de rigueur. But putting the phrase "Web-enabled" in front of everything is the easy bit - actually doing it successfully is the real challenge.

Water utility Sutton & East Surrey Water (S&ESW) is launching a Web-enabled billing service to its customers, who will be able to pay their next water bill over the Internet this spring. No paper will be involved at all. Customers will be able to get their bill online, and pay online. It's e-business for real.

To make Web-enabling successful takes far more than hiring a Web wizard, says Michael Cock, computer operations manager for the water company.

Not only must the business case be watertight - defined cost savings in S&ESW's case - but customers must perceive benefits too, such as greater ease of payment or fewer trees cut down for paper bills.

Customers must feel safe using the online system. It's not just a matter of making it secure, customers must have confidence in it. The Web site shows off its BT trusted organisation certificate and the fact it uses the HTTPS Secure Socket layer.

The online system has to be versatile, so it can change as Internet technology changes. Versatility has to be a key element of the development methodology, says Cock.

It isn't just the online technology that has to be versatile - the business vision behind e-business has to be flexible too. It's easy to think, there, we've done it, we're Web-enabled! But when the project goes live it isn't the end, but the beginning.

"There has to be constant re-evaluation," urges Cock. "You've got to constantly stay ahead of the game."

You've got to keep scribbling things down on the agenda, keep exploring new possibilities.

The water company is already thinking ahead to include such capabilities as cross-selling the plumbing services and heating insurance of the services company in the group.

It also wants to develop ideas such as listing the most water-efficient washing machines as part of their concerns over water conservation and environmentalism.

The general principle, says Cock, is to keep scouting around for ideas and opportunities all the time. "You've got to have vision," he says.

Sutton & East Surrey Water's new online customer billing system is the focus of the forthcoming article in Computer Weekly's BuyIT best practice series.

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