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Interview: Mayank Prakash, global consumer CIO, and Daljit Rehal, CDO, Centrica

Two of energy giant Centrica’s tech bosses talk to Computer Weekly about the impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown and the importance of company culture, innovation and using technology to make life easier for customers

Customers are at the forefront of everything utility provider Centrica does, something which has become even more evident during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, and technology has become key to keeping those customers happy.

Mayank Prakash, Centrica’s global consumer CIO, says it is “first and foremost an organisation focused on our customers”. 

“We absolutely use technology to delight our customers and create new customer propositions. The motivation behind using technology is delighting customers, and doing something that would be extraordinary for our customers,” he says. 

“We had 14,000 colleagues working remotely by the start of May as a result of Darren Miles’s enterprise services team switching from on-premise architecture to a cloud-based, remote working service,” says Prakash.   

“By early May, over a million customer calls were taken by colleagues who were at home. That is an example of technology helping a business serve its customers. Behind the customer experience is the collaboration amongst our colleagues using Microsoft Teams inside the organisation over 26 million times over the same time,” he says. 

“We can see that customer experience improvement in the record-breaking improvement of operational stability of our services as well.”

Tackling change

Prakash says lockdown, as for so many others, took Centrica by surprise, and meant it soon needed to get to grips with the new normal.   

“The first thing we had to do was to enable our colleagues to work remotely effectively. The second thing we had to do was to enable the whole partner ecosystem across the supply chains and the service chains to work effectively together remotely. And the third thing we had to do was change customer journeys, as we could no longer visit every home in the early part of the lockdown,” he says. 

“Centrica has a large number of agile scrum teams, which means we can deliver every few days to improve and enhance the customer experience. It’s not a business case that takes three weeks for approval, it is a customer need that gets prioritised and delivered. That’s the magical ingredient”

Mayank Prakash, Centrica

“We had to change the customer interaction, which meant we changed all of our digital channels and the customer journeys,” he says. This amounted to hundreds of changes that were deployed in the first couple of weeks. 

“The core capability that the organisation has, which helps us do this, is a large number of agile scrum teams that deliver right across our customer journeys. We have, at last count, 86 agile teams delivering right across North America, Ireland and the UK,” says Prakash. 

“That means we can deliver every few days, and improve and enhance the customer experience. It’s not a business case that takes three weeks for approval, it is a customer need that gets prioritised and delivered. That’s the magical ingredient. It’s to the credit of the agile teams that we are able to rapidly respond to customers.”

Lockdown innovation and data science

Lockdown hasn’t stopped Centrica from innovating and deploying new products and projects. One of the energy suppliers owned by Centrica, British Gas, launched a digital-only energy brand called British Gas X, which offers dual-fuel energy, including green electricity, and is managed entirely online.

Across British Gas, the team has also worked to launch 1,000 improvements in the digital journeys for customers, but also a more stable service that works in the way they expect it to work.

Another way technology is helping Centrica staff and customers is through its home-grown digital assistant, says chief data officer (CDO) Daljit Rehal.

“People taking calls to support 17 million customers are assisted through our own internally developed chatbot, which is able to assist and make their job easier”

Daljit Rehal, Centrica

“We have a digital assistant that uses natural language, artificial intelligence-driven conversational support for front-line workers. So people taking calls to support 17 million customers are assisted through our own internally developed chatbot using AWS [Amazon Web Services], which is able to assist and make their job easier,” says Rehal.

Centrica has a strong data science team, which has been built over the past few years, and is key to developments such as this one.

“They started showing us what could be done with our data, and when you combine that with our digital teams, and they start to show you what APIs [application programming interfaces] are capable of doing, it becomes easy to imagine a world where, as you speak into your Amazon Alexa at home, you can do something similar in the office,” he says.

“So it came about through internally driven innovation, and then it really took off after the technical teams gave demos of it to front-line workers.”

During the coronavirus outbreak, the artificial intelligence (AI) assistant was further rolled out to areas where it previously hadn’t been available.

“In addition, we’ve also been able to employ our data scientists to look at things like planning and forecasting using artificial intelligence. They’ve proven the point that for processes that take a long time to execute due to lack of automation and sticking to traditional methods, by employing machine learning they’ve been able to streamline those processes.

“That type of innovation is now being embedded operationally as we roll out new generational systems. We’re not just saying, ‘Let’s buy something, use it and wait for it to be enhanced’. We’re saying, ‘Can we do something about enhancing it ourselves?’, because we have talented people in our company.”

Rehal adds that the company is becoming a little more independent of third-party reliance, and instead is looking at its own talent and how to get the best out of them.

“We give them the freedom to experiment,” he says, adding that the company now has over 17 data science patent applications, “which speaks for the culture of creative innovation established by Peter Sueref and Eddie Edwards”, referring to two of Centrica’s data science gurus.

The importance of culture

Both Prakash and Rehal equate the company’s innovation success with its culture. Staff at the company have worked hard to create a welcoming, collaborative and secure working environment, something which lockdown has demonstrated.

Rehal says the company’s culture of having a caring nature towards customers translates to the same sentiment within the company.  

“We have such a diverse employment base, stretching from the UK and Ireland, all the way to North America. One of the best things that’s happened during this crisis is how people have shown outwardly how they care for each other,” he says.

During lockdown, Centrica has been running virtual cooking classes, activities and musical sessions, bringing colleagues together.

“We’ve been very fortunate to work with so many colleagues who care. Our tech teams have the highest engagement score across the global organisation, thanks to Leonie White’s [Centrica’s head of CIO office] efforts to keep us joined up,” says Prakash.

He points out that with everyone working from home and talking on video calls, people have got to know a little bit more about each other, “which makes for better relationships” as people are there to support one another.

Partnering potential

Collaboration with external suppliers and organisations is also important. In 2018, Centrica signed a strategic partnership with Microsoft, which, said Centrica CIO Mike Young at the time, would enable the company to “take part in innovative pilots and learn how the leading edge of cloud computing can help us accelerate change and move into new markets”.

Prakash says Microsoft is currently working with Centrica to use the machine algorithms the companies have co-created to build an advantage for the UK’s largest fleet service engineer capability. “That’s over 10,000 engineers getting out there on time, to fix our customers’ needs, and aid and address them the first time,” he says.  

There is a whole set of variables to take into account, such as what is installed in each home, what’s broken, making sure the right person shows up, with the right skills to fix the issue, and that they have the right parts, he adds.

Traffic accidents and changing weather patterns are also taken into account. “Some of these things can be planned six months in advance, so doing these dynamically on the fly using lots of variables to create reinforcement machine learning algorithms, which get better the more they’re used, is the magic that we are co-creating with Microsoft,” says Prakash.

Rehal adds that a lot of Centrica’s data is held in Microsoft Azure, but it also uses other cloud providers, such as AWS.

Looking to the future for Centrica, Rehal says that culturally, the future is more and more about continuous improvement – the use of DevOps and agile – and customer-led focus. “We don’t even use those terms,” he says, explaining that the agile development team is actually called the customer journey team, because that is where the emphasis lies.

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