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Q&A: CTO Geoff Purcell on the changing tide at Melbourne Water

Q&A: CTO Geoff Purcell on the changing tide at Melbourne Water

The utility is on a Agile recruitment drive and automating more and more. And it's just bought a submersible called Boaty McBoatface

When Geoff Purcell joined Melbourne Water in January last year, he arrived to a fragmented IT team, ageing asset management and business process systems, and endless disparate databases. But there was also a multi-million dollar, cross-business digital strategy that hoped to bring the government owned statutory authority up to date.

These days the Victorian utility is seeking to automate more and more, is beginning to explore much deeper data analytics, has its own drones and has just purchased a remote controlled submersible robot. It's also on a recruitment drive for Agile professionals seeking Scrum Masters and project leads.

Purcell began his IT career at National Australia Bank and has since held CIO roles at StatePlus, InsuranceLine, and wills and power of attorney services provider State Trustees. He fulfils a dual CTO and CIO at Melbourne Water and is a director and former CEO of integrated electronic payment remittance start-up Payment Adviser.

Here Purcell describes the changing tide at the water company, his biggest challenges and the future of the CIO role.

CIO: What was your assessment of Melbourne Water when you joined and what is your charter over the next year?

Purcell: Firstly, I am very lucky to have inherited a fabulous IT team. My team consistently delivers services together with a number of strategic partners to Melbourne Water employees and customers that meet and exceed our SLAs.

Melbourne Water was embarking on a digital strategy when I joined. The charter of the digital strategy is to make Melbourne Water safer, faster, smarter and easier to work with. Together with my team, I have had the pleasure of shaping, influencing and bringing this to life.

The implementation of the digital strategy at Melbourne Water is now in its second year. The strategy embraces five business domains – customer, service delivery (asset), corporate, infrastructure and capability.

We are coming to the end of an enterprise re-platforming exercise across asset management, business intelligence/data warehouse, business process automation, integration and website/portal. Our focus is now shifting to leveraging the greatest value from those platforms right across the enterprise.

Key elements will deliver customer self-service, greater mobility for field workers, process automation, systems integration, cloud adoption and a greater use of data analytics.

CIO: What have been the biggest challenges in reaching the current state?

Purcell: IT was fragmented across our business when I joined. Centralising and consolidating it has been a great opportunity on our journey to become a high-performing IT team.

Driving business ownership of the digital strategy has also been a great opportunity to demonstrate how we can utilise digital to improve our business. Managing change from three perspectives, people, process and technology, has also enabled us to mature our use of technology.

Looking forward, the impending convergence of IT and OT [operational technology] has led us to form a cross functional team to ensure we get the architecture and alignment correct. Also, greater levels of process automation and remote control places greater dependence on our IT infrastructure so building appropriate resilience into these networks is critical.

A worker at the Mount View Reservoir mini-hydro electricity plant in Glen Waverley
A worker at the Mount View Reservoir mini-hydro electricity plant in Glen Waverley

CIO: What are the main challenges facing Melbourne Water and utilities at the moment?

Purcell: Driving greater degrees of customer-centricity is a constant challenge to ensure we are putting the customer at the centre of everything we do and building processes and systems to make that easier to achieve and more effective.

A longer term challenge is population growth. Melbourne has 4.4 million citizens today and uses 400 billion litres of water per year, but in 30 years’ time will have eight million citizens. How do we provide safe, high-quality drinking water to almost double the population with less rainfall likely as a result of climate change? How do we manage our drainage and sewage infrastructure to meet the needs of a growing city?

These are the things that are driving a lot of our thinking and forward planning at the moment.

There are great opportunities to work more cooperatively across our industry. I meet regularly with the three Melbourne retail water companies (City West Water, Yarra Valley Water and South East Water) to identify opportunities to work together.

One example is the recent release of the Victorian Protective Data Security Standards. We are planning to work together to develop a framework for the industry that all water utilities can use to self-assess and identify gaps and areas for remediation in order to comply.

CIO: What other technology works are happening at the moment?

Purcell: We are embracing the use of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) across Melbourne Water to improve safety and drive operational efficiencies.

There was a fire in an illegal rubbish dump recently. The firefighting authorities alerted us that contaminated ‘black’ water (ash and fire retardant) had leached into a nearby creek. We flew a drone down the creek corridor which quickly helped us pinpoint the source so we could contain it with booms and pump the polluted water out of the creek into a nearby sewer.

We’ve also recently purchased a submersible – nick-named Boaty McBoatface – with a high resolution camera to survey dam walls. Previously divers performed this task.

CIO: Melbourne Water appears to be on an Agile recruitment drive? What’s happening?

Purcell: Melbourne Water traditionally outsourced its applications development. Our business is demanding that we do more with less and do it more quickly. As a result, we decided to insource technologies like BI/data warehouse, mobile application development and process automation.

Agile enables IT to work more closely with our internal stakeholders to deliver higher quality products and services. It enables us to deliver value faster and more often for our business. It also enables IT to be more flexible and react more quickly to internal and external change. Finally, creating a great agile environment helps to drive collaboration and innovation. It makes our IT department a great place to work.

CIO: What is key to success in the CIO role?

Purcell: The absolutely critical element for success in a CIO role is to deliver products and services that meet and exceed service levels 365 days per year. I am lucky that I have a great team that deliver, day-in and day-out. If you are not doing that, then that is a CIO’s first and only focus.

Once you’ve met that challenge you can look more broadly at how to add value to your business. We have a team of business engagement consultants who partner with our business to identify opportunities to leverage technology to create or enhance business value.

Building a high-performing team is also critical – establishing a vision for the future, communicating the vision and motivating the team to achieve it is an essential leadership element for a CIO.

CIO: What does the future hold for the CIO role?

Purcell: CIOs have to embrace change. We are actively encouraging what we call business-led IT at Melbourne Water. We offer a range of light-touch services to these projects around governance, advice, architectural assessment and so on. But we are conscious not to get in the way of the project, we encourage it.

With the massive and ongoing increases in SaaS-based services, IT will become more of a broker and adviser, and less of a service provider. We are planning that change now with the deployment of business engagement consultants, through our enterprise and domain architects, our program and project managers, our contract and performance managers and our business application managers.

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Tags digital strategyITMelbourne WaterSaaSautomationutilityWaterscrum masteragileCIOOToutsourcingctoenterprise

More about AgileCity West WaterNational Australia BankSouth East WaterState TrusteesWestYarra Valley Water

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