Severn Trent, one of the largest utility companies in the UK with a £1.4bn turnover, is looking to improve service for its staff and customers with the increased use of mobile technology and better use of data.
The FTSE 100 firm is investing about 2% of its turnover on IT and for the planning period between 2010 and 2015 will plough an additional £100m into technology to support these improvements.
This year’s IT agenda led by chief information officer (CIO) Myron Hrycyk follows a massive transformation in processes at Severn Trent, underpinned by an all-encompassing implementation of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform supplied by SAP and a move to a virtualised environment.
The scope of the ERP roll-out, which started in 2008 and completed in late 2010, was vast - it covered all areas from supply chain to financials, human resources and asset management. The project was the precursor for another IT-led revolution in the way the firm operates.
“What I wanted to create was a truly mobile workforce here, but it was not just about providing our people on the field with mobile apps, laptops, 3G connectivity and tools to view and update jobs real-time,” Hrycyk told Computer Weekly.
“The idea was also looking at our office space, enabling everyone with truly mobile technology. So what we have done in 2011 was delivering a mobile working experience, which was extremely important for the organisation,” he says.
Severn Trent consolidated 13 office locations around the UK into a high-tech main office in Coventry in late 2010 and that gave Hrycyk’s team the opportunity to introduce several IT innovations.
To optimise allocation of space in the new building, as well as driving efficiency and savings, the majority of the 1,500 desktops previously used by staff with Citrix Xen App thin clients and landlines were mostly replaced by mobile phones, and staff were given smart boards to support collaboration.
“The move was a fantastic opportunity to look at how technology could bring the building alive. We saw the advantages of mobile working and [sought to] utilise the office at a 120% capacity based on the fact that a number of our workforce could be working from home or remotely,” Hrycyk says.
“We wanted to enable people to move around floors and not be tied to a specific desk, but move according to projects or tasks. And with the virtual desktop, mobile technology and cashless systems, we made that happen,” he says.
“That transformation was all about how we could make our workforce more dynamic, agile and reactive in terms of collaboration and problem solving, as well as maximising the investment on this site.”
In 2012, Severn Trent will also be looking to provide more data access to help with decision-making and collaboration.
“Now that we have the underlying technologies in place, we are also looking at how we can simplify processes, drive more efficiency and reduce operating costs and give customers more value for money,” says Hrycyk.
“We are looking at applications that will allow us to draw together data from the ERP solutions and present that to our employees. We are now starting to look at the feasibilities around doing that but in terms of technology, SAP will be the first port of call.”
The firm is also looking at making better use of its geographic information systems (GIS) to get better asset data that people in the field can use. According to Hrycyk, the water company is looking at software supplied by ESRI as another possible source of information that could be combined with SAP data.
The changes in how the company manages information should also reflect in the customer-facing improvements planned for the next 12 months, which include online and mobile-based self-service tools around repairs and billing.
Severn Trent does not measure the carbon footprint of its IT portfolio, but Hrycyk says there are projects underway to get a better understanding of energy usage.
“We have an initiative underway to look at how we are using power and therefore what our carbon footprint is. We are going through 2012 to work out exactly how that is looking,” he says.
“Clearly, when you are moving from a PC-based environment to thin clients, you are also investing in blade servers and so on in another building, so we are trying to measure how that [energy consumption] has been displaced.”
As a large energy user, Severn Trent has its own carbon reduction team within the organisation, and the IT chief is tapping into the expertise of that function to assess the environmental impact of the technology department.
Initiatives around electricity generation through alternative sources are also in place - the company has ambitions to generate about 30% of its own electricity via waste, wind and solar power.
Without disclosing exact numbers, Hrycyk says that Severn Trent spent “a lot of time” figuring out how to get the return on the investments made in IT since the transformation began three-and-a-half years ago.
Lean processes underpinned by new technology, as well as a reduction in manpower required to drive those processes and more self-service and automation, are some of the highlights in terms of results achieved so far.
“The return on the investment on the ERP platform is definitely tangible. We are certainly getting those benefits back,” says Hrycyk.
“On the virtual desktop front, we also made some real savings in terms of the total cost of ownership. It was a very significant shift for IT support, from a thick, heavy-client, locked-down PC environment to virtualised thin clients,” he says.
“The business benefits, albeit harder to measure, are around the speed in which people can move across departments and the increased productivity, as well as the reduced cost and complexity of setting up a new site or shutting one down.”
As with many of his peers, Hrycyk says the trickiest part of leading such a comprehensive, IT-enabled transformation in the business was dealing with the people side of the organisation.
“The IT was tough to implement, as we were fusing together a number of technologies. But the toughest thing was the business change, as SAP brings a new rigour to things and the virtualised environment introduces new ways of working,” the IT chief says.
“However, for me, this was not just a technology transformation. It was a process transformation, with people being the biggest challenge. You can’t just implement the technology and expect people to work differently – there is a lot of awareness, contextualising, and explaining involved.”
Dealing with people’s resistance to change is also a perennial challenge faced by any technology leader looking to introduce IT innovations. So how does a CIO go about doing that?
“You have to get people to understand why things are changing, as well as the changes they will need to adapt to. If you are going to move 1,000 people from their desktop and the desk they come to every day to sharing desks, you can do that overnight,” Hrycyk says.
“You have to bring people with you, try it out, train them and move them over a period of time. With the virtualised desktops, we did a comprehensive trial with people before they moved over to the new site.”
Now, even senior executives at Severn Trent adhere to the new style of working, including the chief executive and his team, who work in open plan offices like the other employees.
“What I have seen is that people really step into that world and there is a real appetite for mobility. Being able to be flexible and providing the technology to enable that is great and the feedback has been fantastic so far,” says Hrycyk.
“We’ve made massive strides so far, and now that we have the building blocks in place, the transformation here will continue to move towards personalised consumer devices, more mobility. The journey never ends.”