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Sydney Water CIO: Risk and courage are my best friends

Sydney Water CIO: Risk and courage are my best friends

The CIO50 CIO of the year reveals how courage is key to realising “the hyper-connected utility”

Sydney Water’s chief information officer George Hunt has called on fellow CIOs to “be courageous” within their organisations in order to “do the right thing”.

Last week Hunt was named CIO Australia’s CIO of the year, taking top spot in our annual CIO50 list.

Having landed in Australia in early 2016 to take a role at the utility, Hunt “hit reset” at the New South Wales owned statutory corporation, leading a major digital transformation towards becoming “the hyper-connected utility”.

To that end, over the last year Hunt and his team created Spatial Hub, a tool that enables Sydney Water crews to visualise customer issues in real time.

The utility is also moving from a reactive or preventative approach to service resilience and asset maintenance to a predictive and responsive model.

Key to the successful development and roll out of the technologies, Hunt says, was letting the right people get on with the task.

“We realised quickly the simple ingredient really is to select a group of smart people, put them in the room and get out of their way and lock the door to protect them from the wider organisation,” Hunt told an audience of leading CIOs at the CIO50 event in Sydney last week.

“The magic of it is; we sought forgiveness rather than permission for doing the right thing. I think a lot of organisations these days lack a bit of courage. We all live in a world where it’s difficult to be courageous, but it’s been a special journey for us,” he added.

Hunt said the utility is focused on becoming more customer-centric, and matching the service of banks and retailers.

It has rolled out a ‘Customer Hub’ which addresses issues before they impact consumers, including detecting sewer chokes, providing alerts on waste water flows, and proactive identification of leaks, bursts and water loss. Digital metering is used to pinpoint water leakage and pressure loss – providing near real time access to consumption information.

Some 5,000 customers have been proactively notified of issues, many before they noticed any disruption themselves.

“The vast majority of water companies are largely engineering and asset-centric organisations, that’s how they’ve grown up. They’re also very CapEx based…but actually we’re all striving to become customer-centric. And that’s a challenge for an asset-centric organisation,” he said.

“The reason we need to become customer-centric is because the expectations of our customers are being set by the retail sector, the banking sector – and there’s no tolerance for the utility sector not to be up there with them,” Hunt added.

You got a friend in risk

Hunt explained that risk can be used to a CIOs advantage when it comes to securing budget and convincing companies of the need to change.

“Risk is my best friend. Risk is the most powerful lever I think I’ve got. [At the board level] I don’t mind agreeing not to spend money on important things but translate that back and say are you comfortable with the level of risk we’re carrying?” Hunt said.

In the “bun fight” for funds and the technology function’s time and attention, Hunt says he “imparts a bit of accountability” on those in the business that are asking “to do something for them”.

“I often say we’re trying to upgrade an aircraft whilst it’s in flight. And if we’re trying to upgrade the aircraft – the customer travel experience at the same time we’re changing the engines to up efficiency – then I basically say ‘are you ok being a glider for a while?’” he said.

“I do play it back in that way so we can go into any process of prioritising where we spend money with our eyes wide open, rather than our eyes wide shut,” Hunt explained.

To find out more about George Hunt’s work at Sydney Water including the innovations his function has rolled out, how he builds teams and his management style, see here.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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