What does compliance have to do with building the utility of the future?

May 26, 2023
The extra work piling up in compliance departments makes them the perfect entry point for digital transformation initiatives.

Software and the internet have transformed the way water utilities operate to the extent that, today, even small rural water utilities with no dedicated IT employees or budget regularly rely on them to communicate, stay organized and get work done.

There is just one problem: while the rest of the world forges ahead and embraces digital tools, water utilities have been relatively slow to adopt, sometimes waiting decades before deciding a piece of software or hardware is mainstream enough to onboard.

While other sectors have forged ahead and developed comprehensive digital strategies, workers at water utilities have had to come up with their own solutions, leading to uneven digitization.

That creates problems when the asset management solution the trade shop picks is different from the one the fleet staff picks, for example, or when the accounting runs on different software than the budgeting process. Uneven digitization deeply impacts everyone, and utilities will need to fix it before pursuing more ambitious digitization initiatives.

The uneven digitization hurricane

Utilities’ uneven digitization have been piling up extra work on the desks of one department in particular: compliance.

More often than not, employees at large utilities tasked with keeping the organization compliant with regulations often find themselves permanently stuck in a pit of paperwork and engulfed in a data hurricane.

The sheer number of different environmental, technology and construction-related regulations water utilities must keep up with at the municipal, state and federal level is staggering. One utility Klir worked with has over a thousand separate permits they need to keep in good standing just to operate through the year.

And as new criteria and environmental standards are constantly investigated, deployed and revised around issues like PFAS and LSLs, water utilities are producing more data than ever before.

A compliance opportunity

There is a silver lining to the fact that so much data and extra work is piling up in compliance departments: it also makes them the perfect entry point for real, strategic digital transformation initiatives.

That was the inspiration behind Klir’s latest research report, “Building the Utility of the Future,” which shows how getting digitization basics right is helping high-performing utilities like Halifax Water, Queensland’s Urban Utilities and DC Water work smarter, faster and at a lower cost.

A useful analogy in the report is the “iceberg.” Some crucial data might be visible at the surface — but, for utilities struggling with digitization, a vast majority of the most valuable information is below the water line, hidden from view and ready to cause problems.

Utilities might sail along without any problems for short periods of time, but icebergs always create unexpected delays and extra work, and they make communication between departments difficult.

To solve the iceberg problem, utilities need to adopt tools that help them build and maintain a single source of truth for that data.

Doing so will do more than save compliance managers time. Its the single most important step utilities can take on their journey toward building the utility of the future, particularly as it relates to the following four areas.

Bracing for the gray tsunami

Uneven digitization makes what should be easy work difficult. The manner in which we work day-to-day has a significant impact on morale and productivity.

The water industry is facing a personnel crisis, yet deep frustration and software unfit for purpose runs rampant. This results in low morale and increasing long-term position vacancies.

Cumbersome spreadsheets are difficult enough to deal with — what happens when the only person at the utility who can read them retires?

Water utilities across North America face huge personnel crises as a generation of experienced workers prepare for retirement, institutional knowledge walking out the door with them. It is more important than ever for utilities to document processes and institutional knowledge so new employees can train for the job.

One compliance manager told Klir, “I've got people about to retire, and also recent college grads. I’ve somehow got to get these people ready for very technical positions very quickly.”

Replacing spreadsheets with intuitive, easy to use SaaS platforms can ensure that any individual, whether they are training for a new job or planning their retirement party, has quick, easy access to the information they need that leads to continuity.

The incredible work results in good reputation and standing within a community should not be lost because new people are in the job.

Eliminating silos and bloated spreadsheets

The patchwork of tools created by uneven digitization can make staying on top of a utility’s compliance position seem like an impossible task while overloading the individuals who do manage to stay on top of it all.

Lacking a dedicated system, one compliance manager took matters into her own hands and built an elaborate Excel “cheat sheet” to manage all of the deadlines, tasks and data her staff were responsible for — a monumental task at an organization that had more than 300 construction projects on the go at any one time.

“It’s so hard being just one person with all the knowledge,” she told Klir. “Every project is different because they have different needs. Each project was trying to do it on their own, [but] they didn’t know regulatory compliance. There were knowledge-sharing gaps between departments.”

Delivering value to internal customers

The less time a compliance department spends chasing down administrative regulatory information, the more time they have to serve internal customers, helping other departments complete large-scale projects or work on policy that can have gargantuan impacts on future costs or potential consent decrees.

“[I want to] be able to serve our other customers, like engineering,” said one compliance manager. “They constantly need regulatory work. And we don’t always have the time to give it to them . . . If we could free up some of our time, that would allow us to give them the consultation that they need to navigate new permits for new projects. We could be a better service and have more time to help them navigate all of those regulations.”

Moving toward self-service

Utility customers and workers alike already live in a world filled with internet-enabled self-serve platforms to consume their media, communicate with colleagues and order groceries.

As Piret Harmon from the Scotts Valley Water District pointed out at the recent World Water-Tech Summit in Los Angeles, California: whether they like it or not, utilities are going to be under increasing pressure to build experiences that are as easy to use and as intuitive as the ones we encounter when ordering toilet paper on smartphones.

“We are trying to actually empower our customers to get more things done without us,” said Harmon. “Why do people have to call us so we can find a piece of paper for them? Why can’t it be like, ‘no, go and browse for it yourself?’”

As utilities struggle to attract young tech-savvy talent, building interfaces and systems that require little to no training to use will become increasingly required.

Bringing utility management into the 21st century

Compliance is just the beginning. It is the first step toward a fully digitized water utility, one that’s prepared for every challenge — and every opportunity — that comes its way.

Overstretched compliance managers might have it the worst when it comes to administrative overload, but important data is pooling across every department.

Since utilities first began employing sensors for water quality, flow, pressure, temperature and more in the 1970s, the amount of data drinking and wastewater facilities generate has exploded.

Today a single large wastewater treatment plant (0.8-3 million population served) can generate upwards of 30,000 unique data points, most of which pile up in data graveyards: employee hard drives, Google Drive, the utility’s servers, etc.

When IT managers look out across their organizations today, they see the tops of numerous icebergs with no way of knowing what is underneath.

To move forward with some of the more exciting innovations in water technology like AI and predictive analytics, large utilities will need to do the hard work of taming these icebergs with a sound data management strategy.

About the Author

David Lynch

David Lynch is the CEO of Klir, a cloud-based task management platform that allows utilities to automate and digitize the thousands of manual tasks required to continually deliver safe and secure water.