Firms need to create a digital culture, says Southern Water’s head of data

The man responsible for all things data at one of the UK’s biggest water companies says it’s "absolutely crucial” that firms embracing a digital agenda get the right data and ensure it's timely and accessible if they are to exploit its richness for future decisions.

Peter Jackson, chief data officer at Southern Water, was one of the many speakers at the second European CIO conference, a two-day event in London, which has heard from those responsible for steering the digital agenda within their companies. 

While only being in the role for 14 months, Jackson’s appointment marks a change in approach to how companies operate. He is responsible for constructing a digital strategy for Southern Water which supplies 521 million litres of drinking water along 13,837 kilometres of water mains to customers’ taps.

Addressing delegates at the conference, the chief data officer described entering the role as “going into a greenfield site and unpicking what is there”, and with large-scale companies like Southern Water having such huge amounts of legacy data meaning it could be a “basket case to sort out with pressure from the supply chain and regulators needing to be understood and dealt with”.

Jackson said there were five main reasons for creating a digital strategy which revolved around regulation, ensuring a competitive edge, customer satisfaction, operational efficiency and mainly because everyone else is so companies cannot be afford to be left behind.

But at the core of the strategy, Jackson spoke about vital underlying elements to enable its success. They centred around the following:

  • The need to understand questions and what is it after
  • How it must align with business objectives, look at these insights if it doesn’t answer what the business needs. 
  • The importance of getting the right data: Information will prove useless if organisations don’t have the information they need to answer the questions they prioritise
  • The need to make sure it’s timely and accessible: Large amounts of data can sit in silos, meaning firms can sometimes only get a weekly extract from data which slows down the operating system. 

Jackson also highlighted the importance of companies hiring specialist teams to collect data in order to attain desired insights. Related to this, he also said that one of the biggest problems encountered was when firms “went and did their own thing” and he said that the biggest enemy to data governance was Excel spreadsheets or when companies made critical decisions from Microsoft Access.

Finally, the digital chief revealed how the water company is currently embarking on a shared data exercise with a fellow unnamed water firm. While it is in the early stages, Jackson said it was a big step in the fact it simply overcame the competitor barrier and meant both companies could take advantage of a large, more varied data set that could identify deficiencies or positives on either side.

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