The water sector is no stranger to this challenge, and must also focus on it, helping people and companies redefine processes and organisational structures to handle digital transformation. In his article 'El cambio no es la tecnología' (change is not about technology), Xavier Marcet already put it very clearly: 'The digital transformation has to do with people and it involves technology'. Changing an organisation is a complex task, and could be a slow and difficult process to handle, even more so when its purpose is something as precious and vital as providing drinking water to people, where there is no margin for error.
On the other hand, our society's current global environment is subject to constant changes at a fast pace, that is, there is huge volatility. Uncertainty is another key factor, linked to the usual unpredictability of future situations. If to this context we add the concept of complexity, where problems are multivariate, and often cause and effect are not connected, and the concept of ambiguity, with a distortion of reality and polysemy, we have the English acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), which sums up our current paradigm.
Prof. Dr. Matthias Maier, head of the procurement division of Stadtwerke Karlsruhe analyzing the module "Current Status Network Tool" of WatEner.
Given this situation, we can ask ourselves: How can we tackle a complex change like digital transformation to implement successfully and safely existing technologies, with the purpose of becoming more efficient and working collaboratively? Any strategic change process needs a detailed plan describing an analysis of requirements and objectives, the steps to follow (methods), how will it be implemented, how will we check if changes have been successful (testing), and how will the new structure be maintained and monitored. To simplify, if we consider this process of digital transformation and implementation of digital tools as a project, we can use different methods, with project management theories such as the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) by the Project Management Institute (PMI), or else some based on software development, such as the classic 'cascade development', or other newer ones such as the Agile methodology. The latter has expanded beyond its origin in software development, to be used in business organisation, turning into what is known as the 'Agile philosophy'.
The Agile philosophy uses iterative processes with incremental deliveries that allow a flexible and quick response to changes
A lot has been written about these methodologies and practices for projects: benefits and drawbacks, strengths and weaknesses, and even the relation between them, but... Which method can we choose to implement smart solutions in our water sector, to minimise the risks of change management? Our experience with the implementation of the WatEner® platform and smart water tools in different countries indicates that the best thing is to couple these methodologies, combining a global, long term vision using more traditional planning methods (for example a Digital Transformation Strategy or DTS) with a local approach and short term results, such as the one offered by the Agile methodology. Having a DTS is a must, to provide a strategic framework and define the goals of the transformation, the guiding principles, lines of action and milestones to achieve along the way, and of course to allocate resources, a budget and clear responsibilities within the organisation.
Jorge Helmbrecht and Jose María Boutín, General Manager and Sales Manager of WatEner.
Nevertheless, a local approach, with short term results, such as the one proposed by the Agile philosophy, can facilitate adopting the technology while minimising risks, uncertainty, and particularly, opposition to change. The path towards the Agile philosophy, as expert Tiago Garcez comments, must be defined from empiricism and collaboration; empiricism is the only thing that ensures continuous improvement, and collaboration is the best way to tackle complex problems. The Agile philosophy uses iterative processes with incremental deliveries that allow a flexible and quick response to changes and open communication between the working team and the client. The public statement of principles of this methodology can be found in the Agile Manifesto, and is based on valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, in addition to prioritising customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and quick response to changes.
We have been able to implement and deploy our WatEner platform, starting with specific challenges, delimited and measurable, expanding afterwards its features
In the field of smart solutions such as WatEner®, it is advisable to start the global implementation by solving gradually different specific challenges, delimited in time and space (for example, finding areas with leaks, detecting anomalies, knowing the precise water balance, predicting consumption or enhancing the pumping schedule, among others). This agile method facilitates the interaction between the WatEner working teams and the client, and with it you can define clear milestones and short working cycles that provide verifiable results in the short term. This way, you can monitor closely the implications of the change for the processes and how it affects people, and particularly, technology users.
- The implementation with a local approach should quickly resolve some challenges which are common to a broader digital transformation process, and which are often contemplated or defined in the DTS. Several questions should be answered as part of this process, for example: Where should data and computer systems be housed (local servers, in the cloud, or a mix of both). How can data be shared, what type of data, and to what extent should it be aggregated in time and space? Who is responsible for generating, storing, correcting, validating, sharing and protecting each type of data? Which data are considered part of the company's assets, and who are their owners, and the affected and interested parties in relation to such data? Indeed, real world experience reveals the discrepancies between a medium-long term DTS and daily practice, where both functional and non-functional aspects (usability, availability, reliability, security, scalability, etc.) that could ruin a technological change are involved. The Agile philosophy enables quick adaptation to changing needs, and, particularly, to people's reaction and evolution.We recommend avoiding highly specialised solutions in isolated compartments, to favour instead technologies with a holistic vision.
We recommend avoiding highly specialised solutions in isolated compartments, to favour instead technologies with a holistic vision
As a remarkable result of this philosophy, we have been able to implement and deploy our WatEner platform, starting with specific challenges, delimited and measurable, expanding afterwards the features to include different objectives, areas, and organisation levels. We got the workers and operators of the water supply company using the tool to become collaborators and 'external partners' to help improve the solution, seek new challenges and future developments, and, ultimately, facilitate change management to ensure greater efficiency.
Real-time operation of the hydraulic model using WatEner for one of our customers.
The key for successful adoption of technology is a combination of the principles, guidelines and objectives of the DTS, and addressing specific challenges quickly, in a way that can be measured, always involving the client and adapting to their needs. Therefore, it is essential to implement flexible and scalable technologies, flexible in order to adapt to requirements and changing needs (Agile methodology), and scalable so they can grow in parallel with the technological evolution of the network, and expand to cover more ambitious challenges (DTS objective). We recommend avoiding highly specialised solutions in isolated compartments (they foster complexity and digital isolation), to favour instead technologies with a holistic vision, that comply with open and interoperability standards, and facilitate future growth and expansion to other sectors, or at least communication with existing tools.
The Agile philosophy enables quick adaptation to changing needs, and, particularly, to people's reaction and evolution
As a conclusion, the path to adopt Smart Water Tools must contain a combination of traditional management and planning methods with agile practices and principles for development and adoption. That is, it is advisable to start the transformation following general guidelines and objectives, but on the basis of solutions to specific problems, through a process that we can learn from step by step, that enables constant adaptation and timely amendments as needed. If we had to define this philosophy with a symbolic statement, we could use the well-known sentence attributed to Patrick Geddes: 'Think global, act local'.