Northumbrian Water Group architects customer-centric vision

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth November 17, 2023
To deal with business, regulatory and environmental challenges, water utilities - including Northumbrian Water Group - need to be digital customer-centric, one UK firm is already in the flow

An image of a water filled dam in Northumbria
(Image sourced via Northumbrian Water)

Across the UK there are waterworks that rival the great rail stations for sheer scale and industrial beauty. Victorian Britain witnessed the building of beautiful and practical architectural works. In 2023, beautiful and practical digital architecture is reshaping the customer experience. Martin Jackson, Head of Strategy and Product Management at Northumbrian Water Group, described to diginomica how digital architecture is redrawing customer experiences. 

Customer experience has been a core technology transformation focus of Northumbrian Water Group for the last eight years. In the UK, water companies are private enterprises that are responsible for clean and waste-water in a region, as the Northumbrian Water Group name suggests. As a result, residents don’t have a choice about who they buy water services from. But water is a precious commodity with some big climate emergency-related challenges on the horizon - even on an island noted for its rain. Good customer experience, therefore, is essential to water companies if they are to meet regulatory demands and deliver for the communities that we operate within. As Jackson explained at the Gartner Symposium: 

Households don’t have a choice, but we have to be a company that they would choose if they did have a choice. A lot of what we do is abstract to the customer; they measure success by being able to drink water from the tap, flush the toilet, and they pay for this via a direct debit.

Water companies and their customers need to have a relationship - a relationship that protects the customer and allows the water companies to deal with environmental challenges. As providers of an essential service, Northumbrian Water Group are aware of the cost of living in the UK as its customers deal with inflation (6.7% in the UK compared to a European average of 4.3%) and provides a range of support services to customers. Jackson says: 

We are an organization that is at the heart of the community, and it has been a really tough time. We are using digital to support our most financially vulnerable customers. Digital enables you to be more targeted and personalized in what you offer. Some customers have opted to access this help through our digital channels.

That, in turn, allows Northumbrian Water Group to discuss with their customers how together they can tackle the climate emergency, Jackson says: 

We have to open up a valuable conversation with them on consumption levels. Also, what they flush down the toilet has a huge influence, as blockages lead to floods. So we have to have an open and transparent conversation to demonstrate the usage of water and what their behaviour looks like.

Northumbrian Water has been digitally campaigning for wipes to be put in a bin and not flushed. All of this is achieved by using digital methods adopted from online leaders such as Apple and delivery firm DPD, Jackson says. He adds: 

Our customers don’t have an experience with another water firm; they compare us to retail and other digital service providers. So, we look at these companies to see what we can leverage and learn from them and transfer to our context.

New pipes 

A digital customer experience required the right foundations, and in 2015, Northumbrian Water Group began replacing its technology infrastructure as phase one of its digitization. The customer care, billing and asset management technologies were replaced with a new stack from Oracle and IBM Maximo.

Replacing these technologies was done as a ‘big bang’ approach. Back in 2015, big bang projects were already out of favour as agile methods began to take hold. But as Jackson explains, sometimes you just have to go large: 

There are practicalities to this approach, as you build a vision and then commit to it. You have made the decision, set out the strategy, and you implement it.

Jackson goes on to explain that the former technologies were decades old, and the big bang allowed a dramatic shift that led to agile and iterative methods to flow from then on. These big shifts succeeded, Jackson says, because of the focus on enterprise architecture and the work of his team to be a modern enterprise architecture outfit: 

We decided we would be focused on enablement. We were not going to be an ivory tower, so we placed architecture into the delivery teams. That meant the architects got a real understanding of the business and acted as a link back to the technology programmes and ensured there was technological rigour. 

We couldn’t build on top of our foundations without the architecture team being embedded, and they have delivered both the technology and the end-to-end customer experience as well as a good data architecture. Now, as we move towards the use of AI, we know we have good data.

Jackson and Northumbrian Water Group have achieved what many CIOs desire: an architecture team that, in his words, reinvents itself in order to deliver for the business. Something many CIOs say enterprise architecture fails to deliver

Building architecture

For the architecture team to succeed, Northumbrian Water Group had to build the right architectural practice. Jackson says: 

Architects, product teams and product managers, it has all to come down to getting the right people with the right values and behaviours. For a lot of them it is their first role in architecture, they were heads of development or a network engineer and some were business analysts. We find the right kind of people that have the ability to back themselves; they enjoy that uncertainty, and they have a growth mindset. Then you wrap around the methods you need.

This approach has seen the technology team recruit people from customer and operational roles who then used a set of pathways developed by the technology team to gain the additional skills they needed. Jackson says: 

We have a good eye for talent and for identifying transferable skills. We have also focussed on a diverse shortlist.

This has resulted in a high level of employee engagement at Northumbrian Water Group and very low attrition. 

My take

Jackson says water companies have to open up a valuable conversation with customers, a statement that reveals two important things. Firstly, the water industry realises that the challenges the environment faces (and which their business model is reliant upon) have a shared responsibility to consume less, reduce pollution and protect ecosystems. Secondly, in our Barcelona-based discussion, Jackson revealed that enterprise architecture is moving towards a business value-based role. That second point is as important as water to CIOs, as business value is the lifeblood of enterprise technology.

A grey colored placeholder image